Here’s a dilemma every book publisher should hope to face
How curation automation is going to disrupt content consumption

Why all-you-can-read subscriptions need curation

The initial promise is compelling, especially for voracious readers. For $10-$15/month consumers get access to more content than they could possibly read in a month. That ultimately creates a bigger problem than the subscription platforms probably realize.

For more than a year now I’ve been a subscriber to both Oyster, for books, and Next Issue, for magazines. Both have slightly altered my reading habits but neither are serving their content in an optimal manner.

For Next Issue, it’s as though the U.S. Post Office backs up a truck and dumps 100+ magazines every month. Sure, there are many I enjoy and a few that I used to value enough to buy individually in the print days. Compare that large, unreadable stack to one thin magazine, The Week. If I had to choose between the 100+ Next Issue magazines and The Week, the latter wins every time.

What makes The Week so unique? Their editors are curating and quoting content from many other magazines, covering both sides of all the major issues. IOW, when I read The Week I feel as if I just read the Cliff’s Notes of all the top newspapers and magazines…and I can accomplish this in less than an hour.

The Week is efficient and Next Issue is bloated. When I finish reading an issue of The Week I feel like I got a thorough global debriefing in record time. When I close the Next Issue app I feel like I wasted much of the abundant content in magazines I never opened let alone read.

The Week has obviously invested in an editorial team to create this unique and valuable experience. The all-you-can-read services like Next Issue are simply throwing more content at you in its original container, hoping you’ll see the value. It’s like comparing a fine restaurant to The Golden Corral. I’ll overindulge on junk food from time to time but I certainly don’t want to do it every day at every meal.

I should point out that I still like my Next Issue subscription and find it valuable. But it could be so much better. Next Issue could offer a curated option like The Week and charge a premium for that model. In fact, I could see cheaper and pricier subscription models built off the Next Issue foundation. You like sports? Pay $5/month and get access to the curated, The Week-like version, of all the top sports stories every month. You want a curated version of everything? You’ll need to pay more than the $15/month Next Issue charges for their current premium option.

There will always be room for simple, all-you-can-read models like Oyster and Next Issue. But these platforms can attract even more subscribers and offer a variety of models by also embracing a curation model like The Week.


Kevin McLaughlin

Frankly? Not gonna happen for $10 a month! Oyster, for example, is paying $7 to the publisher of that $10 ebook you just borrowed. If you borrow $50 of books in a month, Oyster pays out $35 to the publishers of those books!!!

They are gambling that most people will borrow less than one book per month. Basically, it's the same game that the $10 a month gym memberships play. The $10 a month gyms cannot possibly afford to pay the rent unless they get THOUSANDS of people signing up. But they don't have the space for thousands of people to come work out. So the deliberately target people who *think* they want to work out - but who actually will just have the $10 a month charged to their card and only rarely stop by.

Oyster - and the other subscription services - works like that. Even Amazon, which pays out only $1.50 to indies (and pays 70% of list price to the major publishers) for Kindle Unlimited books is counting on people not borrowing too many books. But for Oyster and Scribd, where every borrow gives the publisher 70% of the list price on the ebook?

It stops working ENTIRELY if people read many books.

A book club format, with highly vetted books might work. But they'd have to charge MORE than the regular retail price on the books you got to make it work. Curation would improve the value of the service - which is the opposite of what subscription book services want to do. They want you paying monthly and NOT reading many books. ;) If curation equalled people reading more (and I think it would), then they'd have to start charging a LOT more - both for the curation service itself (which would require humans to find books, and be hugely expensive) and because you'd be reading more, therefore costing them more.

I'd expect a curated subscription service to cost at least twice as much as the existing ones.

Also, the problem is making the curation work well. Curation is only helpful if the curator's tastes match the reader's. So you need a LOT of curators: one for people who like romances about vampires, another for people who like regency romances, another for people who like science fiction set in the near future, another for star trek fans, and so on. All of which requires people, not computers - again, expensive.

Joe Wikert

Hi Kevin. You make an excellent point about the business model for this. That's why scale would be so important, which is also why I mentioned the need for these services to bring even more subscribers to their platforms.

The Week has obviously figured out a way to make this work. But then again, I figure they're not paying the publishers for fair use of excerpts like Oyster pays when a book is read. That makes me wonder if The Week's fair use model is something to consider here though. After all, if a summary or only excerpts are provided, could the all-you-can-read platform do that for free, not having to pay the publisher a nickel?

I ask that last question because I came across an interesting product on Oyster recently. I was thinking of reading the new David Brooks book, "The Road to Character." It's not available on Oyster yet, of course, but a summary of it is. That summary was written by someone who published it through Smashwords and now it's also part of Oyster's all-you-can-read model. It's like the Cliffs Notes approach. I'm not sure it's worth reading the summary but I'd be surprised if that author or Smashwords or Oyster are paying the publisher of Brooks' anything for selling a summary like this...

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