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Lessons from one publisher’s aversion to ebooks

Why Oyster now sells ebooks too

Oyster started as an all-you-can-read ebook subscription service but they recently decided to expand their reach by selling individual ebooks as well. There’s been plenty of speculation on why they made this move, including catching up to competitors like Scribd and Amazon. While the competitive point is valid, I think there are two more important reasons for this move: sustainability and customer loyalty.

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Regarding sustainability, Oyster’s business model is a tricky one. Even though Oyster only earns $9.95/month from a subscriber they’re undoubtedly paying publishers more than $9.95 each month for certain subscribers. It all depends on how many books that subscriber reads in the month.

A subscriber doesn’t have to read the entire book for a publisher payout to occur, by the way. Each publisher has negotiated a percentage threshold, so once a subscriber reads past that agreed-to point in the book Oyster pays the publisher as if the entire book was read. In short, some (and perhaps many) subscribers are triggering full publisher payouts for partially read books.

That sounds like a great way to build a large subscriber base but if you’re losing money on many of them it’s hard to make it up in volume. This is precisely why Oyster needed to diversify their business model. They already have the platform, the reading application and they’re building a nice brand. All they had to do was add the option to buy rather than subscribe. It’s also a smart way to add more recent and popular publications to their offering, which tends to be pretty shallow in many subject areas.

The other enormous challenge I see for these all-you-can-read subscriptions is customer loyalty. Since I never own the content I’m reading, and one service’s library starts to look same as all the others, there’s no reason for me to stick with any one provider. The service with the lowest price and other gimmicks eventually becomes the winner. That’s not exactly an attractive long-term strategy.

But if I’ve built a library of books I actually own on that platform it starts to look more like the walled garden Amazon built. Once you’ve bought a lot of Kindle editions it’s hard to think about moving to another ebook platform. That’s undoubtedly what Oyster hopes to do by adding the purchase option to their service.

Will it make a difference? Perhaps, but the biggest threat to Oyster and Scribd is, of course, Amazon. Fortunately for Oyster and Scribd, Amazon is now much more focused on drones all the other non-book consumer product areas. That’s enabled Oyster and Scribd to build some buzz and momentum. The problem is that if someone at Amazon decides to make subscriptions more of a priority both of these little guys are extremely vulnerable. It’s just too easy for consumers to switch to Amazon and gain all the other benefits an ebook-only service simply can’t offer.

Comments

Yoav Lorch

Joe -
Thanks.
I think you are spot on when you presume Oyster and Scribd have shown internally, in their own models, that being profitable with their current model is highly questionable.
All subscription services are a mode for light users to subsidize heavy users. But in the book world there may be too few light-users ready for this arrangement, and too many heavy users who gain a huge benefit from it.

YL

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