The news that the general ebook subscription offering Oyster is throwing in the towel was not really a surprise. The business model they were forced to adopt for the biggest publishers — paying full price for each use of a book with a threshold trigger at considerably less than a complete read while, at the same time, offering consumers a monthly subscription price that barely covered the sale of one book, let alone two — was inevitably unprofitable. Their only hope was that they’d build a large enough audience fast enough that publishers would become in some way dependent on it (if not the revenue it produced) and agree to different terms.
It would be a mistake to interpret Oyster’s demise as clear evidence that “subscriptions for ebooks don’t work”. Obviously, they can. Safari has been a successful and profitable business for nearly two decades. The Spain-based 24Symbols has been operating an ebook subscription business, mostly outside the US and mostly not in English, for too many years to be running exclusively on spec VC money. Scribd has very publicly (and a bit clumsily, in my opinion) adjusted their subscription business model to accommodate what were unprofitable segments in romance ebooks and audiobooks, but the inference would be that for other segments the business model is working just fine. And then there’s Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which is sui generis because they control so many of the parts, including deciding more or less unilaterally how much they’ll pay for much of the content.
What seemed obvious to many of us from the beginning, though, was that a stand-alone subscription offer for general trade books could not possibly work in the current commercial environment. The Big Five publishers control the lion’s share of the commercial books that any general service would need. All of those publishers operate on “agency” terms, which makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a subscription service to pull those books in unless the publisher allows it. The terms that the publishers would participate in the subscriptions required, which were, apparently, full payment for the book after a token amount was “read” by a subscriber, combined with a limited number of titles offered (no frontlist), made the subscription offer inherently unprofitable.
The publishers see the general subscription offers as risky business for books that are currently selling well a la carte. Not only would they threaten those sales, they threaten to convert readers from a la carte buying to going through the subscription service. To publishers, this just looked like another potential Amazon: an intermediary that would control reader eyeballs and have increasing clout to rewrite the terms of sale.
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So the failure of Oyster is actually another demonstration of a “new” reality about book publishing, except it is not so new. Book publishing — and book retailing — are no longer stand-alone businesses. Publishing and bookselling are functions, and they can be quite complementary to other businesses. And as adjuncts to other businesses, they don’t actually have to be profitable to be valuable. What that means is that entities trying to make them profitable — or, worse, requiringthem to be profitable to survive — are at a stark competitive disadvantage.
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The story on Oyster, still incomplete as of now, is that a lot of their management team is on its way to Google, which, in effect, “bought” the company to get them. Google seems to be trying hard to make sure we don’t think they bought Oyster’s business, they just bought Oyster’s staff. Obviously, Google fits the description of a company with many other interests in which books can play a part. In the beginning, that was all about search. Now it is also about the Android ecosystem and media sales in general. An ebook subscription business, or even a content subscription business, could make sense in Google’s world. But it would be a relatively small play for them. My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that they have something other than a mere “book subscription service” in mind for that Oyster staff to work on. Smarter observers than I seem to believe that the personnel Google recruited give them knowledge about Oyster’s mobile reading and discovery technology. Of course, that’s core information for Google.