Just as we predicted, 2014 seems to be the year of the eBook subscription service. The concept of a 'Netflix' or 'Spotify' for books has been around for a long time, but it's only in the past 6-9 months that consumer-ready services have jumped into the market to disrupt the way in which readers access and pay for eBook content. So far Oyster Books and Scribd have dominated conversations about the subscription model in the media, but this week we can add another. Byliner, a smartphone and tablet app-based publishing and reading platform for short-form content has now entered the subscription market. It offers readers a choice of paying $0.99 a week for a "curated" reading experience of 3-5 articles a week or $5.99 a month for all-you-can-eat access to its catalogue of content that includes works by writers such as Nick Hornby, Ann Patchett and Margaret Atwood.

As a commissioner and publisher of short-form work, Byliner is a very different proposition to Oyster and Scribd, which offer access to full-length eBooks, mainly selected from the backlists of major trade publishers and aggregators like Smashwords. Its pricing model is, however, an interesting jumping off point into an examination of how these services are priced and what value an the 'all you can eat' buffet of unlimited access to content offers consumers.

The inspiration behind this post is this blog by David Pakman, the former CEO of early music streaming service eMusic turned VC. In it he argues that at their current pricing level (roughly $10 per month) music streaming services such as Spotify will find their growth is inhibited by what the average consumer is willing to pay each year for music. Pakman says that, according to data from iTunes, which is now the world's largest music retailer, the average customer pays around $48 per year for recorded music (and this figure is falling year on year) - compared to the $120 they would pay to listen to music via a streaming service over the same period. His contention is that if they are to become truly mass market, streaming services will have to drop their prices, and record companies may be forced to let them as their share of consumers' discretionary spending is eroded by apps, games and other forms of digital entertainment.

We decided it would be interesting to apply Pakman's methodology to eBook subscription to see whether it was possible to make comparisons between the cost of subscribing to content and buying it. The following analysis is based on a few assumptions and data pulled from different sources so isn't  authoritative but, like Pakman's analogy, it raises some questions about value propositions that surround eBook subscription services.

According to Pew Internet's most recent figures on reading in the US, the typical (median) American adult reads five books a year, which would, according to the buckets into which Bowker organises readers, put them on the cusp between being 'light' (1-5 books a year) and 'medium' (6-10 books a year) readers. At the present moment average US book buying habits are still a mixture of print and eBook so assessing average spend per consumer is more difficult than it is with recorded music. For the purposes of this blog, however, let's assume that this 'average' consumer's print book versus eBook reading habits align with general market trends. The most recent statistics released by Bookstats has eReading accounting for 20% of the US market, which would mean the average consumer reads four print books and one eBook.

Getting to what they might spend on books then involves another set of assumptions. If that eBook was a bestseller (which it probably was), then chances are it cost around the $7 mark (see Jeremy Greenfield's articles on DBW for an excellent rundown of eBook pricing trends). The other four print books could also have ranged greatly in price, but if they were four trade paperbacks then it's possible the consumer spent about $9 on each book. This would put the average American reader's spend on books at $43 per year - $5 below their spend on recorded music in the same period.

Let's compare this to the proposition offered by Oyster and Scribd. Unlimited access to eBooks for $9.99 a month - or $119.88, nearly three times the 'average' American's spend. Byliner's offering is considerably cheaper at $72 per year, but isn't directly comparable because it offers access to short-form content rather than full-length books.

Scribd and Oyster are both very careful in their value propositions to emphasise the cost-effectiveness of their model to 'heavy' readers, just as Spotify markets principally to people who buy and listen to a wide range of recorded music. This does lead to the question of the size of the heavy reading market. Pew's most recent data suggests that 28% of Americans are 'heavy' readers who read 11 books or more are year. But applying the same methodology to calculate their annual book expenditure, an 11 book a year reader might spend $14 on eBooks and $81 on print - a total of $95 compared to the $120 that a 12 month Oyster subscription would cost. Based on these assumptions a reader would need to read 15 books a year before they could be said to be saving money by subscribing to content instead of buying individual books. In doing so the same consumer would have to stop buying print books. And given the lower price of eBooks, this would further extend the point at which a consumer reaches 'break even' on an annual subscription from 15 to 17 books.

Another possible barrier to greater adoption of eBook subscription by consumers is the choice of content available in their catalogues. A reader going to Oyster or Scribd in its current form looking for frontlist bestsellers will instead find an inventory that's based largely on older backlist titles. Just as Spotify started small and built up its catalogue gradually, this will no doubt change, but it will take time.

Of course there are multiple examples from real-life that tell us consumers make decisions about membership services based less on calculation than aspiration. The gym is a case in point - how many members effectively pay their gyms $50 every time they go for a swim. It's possible a great many people will sign up to Oyster or Scribd, use it to supplement rather than replace their reading habits and barely think about the money. A more positive example closer to books would be Audible's member based audiobook subscription model, though it's arguable that it owes a large part of its success to the high sale price of individual audiobooks which means that the retail price of just one audiobook is equivalent to three or sometimes four months' membership. 

The rate at which new subscription services are coming into play is, however, fundamentally a reassuring sign that publishers and content providers are willing to experiment with new business models. It remains to be seen whether these businesses will achieve growth by relying on heavy readers, but it's a trend we'll continue to watch with interest as it develops.

Byliner's Content Director, Matt Dellinger, will be delivering the keynote address at a Ingenta event The Big Debate: Direct To Consumer Publishing on 24 April in New York. Follow the link for more information and to request an invitation to this event.

Image credit: lynn.gardner (Flickr)