The concept of an ‘all-you-can-read’ subscription to eBook content is certainly not new. Plenty with a decent knowledge of trade publishing would be understandably cynical of the concept. With the quiet closure of both Entitle and Oyster in 2015, the consumer could be excused for thinking the hoary ‘Netflix for textbooks’ was an idealistic, albeit doomed premise. Scribd only last month announced a tentative foray back towards an ‘unlimited’ reading option; the issues are well publicised. Consumer interest has remained high, but publisher involvement has been inconsistent and cautious. For a major publisher to now be making a strategic shift as large as Cengage Unlimited, putting digital and affordability right to the fore, something has to have changed.
That change is clear to see. Consumer demand is at a peak and aggregator platforms like Perlego are starting to thrive by seeing broad buy-in from academic publishers. With over 1000 publishers already signed up, a deal with Ingram CoreSource Plus in 2017 was a significant coup for the subscription service. Last year was tumultuous for swathes of the academic publishing industry, and the willingness to engage with digital models is visibly on the rise.
So, if eBook subscriptions have reached the fundamental inflection point of consumer interest and buy-in from the leading content providers, how can they learn from and thus avoid the past tribulations of Scribd and their contemporaries?
The real benefit of eBook subscription services is the capacity to aggregate a critical mass of frontlist content for users from a diverse mix of the best publishers in the world. This then needs to be achieved without the upfront outright purchase of rights, and without an unsustainable threshold model of publisher royalties. It is well reported that this threshold model at Scribd very nearly led to bankruptcy as a result of voracious reading by some ‘super users’. Alas, the promise of genuinely unlimited reading is never attainable via this model, as shown by their heavily caveated relaunch of an ‘unlimited’ service last month. Significantly, Perlego has now managed this through the creation of a more innovative royalty payment model that is fair and sustainable for both the platform and the publisher.
Arnaud Nourry, CEO of the leading publishing group, Hachette, says publishers need to learn from the most crucial mistake the music and entertainment industries made when partnering with Netflix and Spotify – the loss of control over their pricing. Kindle Unlimited have fallen foul of exactly this, sparking ill-favour in the industry via the dictation of pricing and publisher returns. The capacity of a service like Perlego to account for the set digital list price of content, as set by the publisher, makes for a stronger publisher-platform relationship. By retaining control, the revenue is grown for the publisher amongst consumers who demand affordable access on one unifying platform.
The road has been admittedly bumpy for the eBook subscription service, but by ensuring a genuinely unlimited service through the avoidance of unsustainable royalty payment models, the concept may now finally see the success that the consumer demands.