The Future Will Be Monthly: Subscription Models for Authors

From Indies Unlimited:

Netflix. Lootcrate. Amazon Prime. Everyone has at least heard of most of these, and you probably subscribe to one or two of them. From TV to men’s razors, the subscription model is catching on with consumers.

According to Deloitte, 69% of households now subscribe to one or more video streaming subscription services. A survey conducted by Global Banking and Finance Review reported that 70% of business leaders say subscription business models will be key to their prospects in the years ahead.

How can publishing get in on this thriving new trend? Let me count the ways.

Publishers have a big hurdle to jumping into a subscription model: no reader buys every book they publish. But authors don’t have that problem. They can cultivate readers who will read everything they put out, and it is these authors who can benefit greatly from implementing a subscription model of their own.

How do we know this? Because they are already doing it.

Services like Patreon allow authors and artists to cultivate patrons either on a monthly basis, to per creation, while services such as Shopify and Payhip let you sell digital downloads and memberships. Another site, Gumroad, gets you set up to sell everything from ebooks to physical products and create a membership site. Want to keep things simple? Add a subscription payment button to your website with PayPal.

Paypal is what author Dean Wesley Smith uses to process subscriptions to his very own magazine, Smith’s Monthly. Each month, Smith publishes a print and electronic magazine containing several short stories a full novel, and serialized fiction (and he sells the individual issues on Amazon and other sites as well).

. . . .

Indie author and small press publisher John G. Hartness uses Gumroad and Patreon as a subscription service for $5 monthly short stories. Hartness also sells ebooks and audio downloads via Gumroad, and these are often cheaper than Amazon and the other ebook sites because Gumroad takes a smaller cut, so it’s a win-win for both the author and his readers.

You’ll need to have at least some of your books wide on Amazon, and you likely won’t get the traffic that the world’s largest search engine for books does, but over time it can be a nice chunk of change. It works for print books as well. For $25 a month, my patrons on Patreon get signed print copies of my books, with free U.S. shipping, as well as free stories and snippets. And it’s another fun way to interact with your readers.

Link to the rest at Indies Unlimited

PG is old enough to remember various book-of-the-month clubs, so subscriptions are definitely not a new thing in the book world.

That said, indie authors come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. PG knows some that are organizing book projects in which several authors contribute a short story to a collected stories ebook and it is widely-believed that a regular email newsletter from an author to readers who opt-in to receive it is a good way of keeping readers engaged between book releases.

For other authors, writing books is what gets them up and in front of the computer each morning. As much as they appreciate those who buy their books, writing a chatty newsletter instead of the latest chapter in their noir novel is a burden.

Others have day jobs, some in offices, others on assembly lines and others who are shuffling children hither and yon to school, sports, music lessons, doctors, and dentists. These authors may need to spend their writing time focused hard on their first or next book.

A subscription model is fine if you have the inclination, time and energy to pursue it, but, in PG’s HO, getting good books out the door for readers to buy is Job #1.

17 thoughts on “The Future Will Be Monthly: Subscription Models for Authors”

  1. I’m in the process of migrating off Patreon because it discriminates via capricious enforcement of its own rules. People who have legitimate concerns about civil discourse and free speech should probably check out alternatives like SubscribeStar or Locals (which is where I’m moving now).

    There’s no good payment processor solution at this time. My only advice there is ‘be prepared to migrate.’

    • They play pretty fast and loose with their own rules. I’ll give you that. But I’m all about de-platforming anti-Semitic bigots. Hate speech has no place in rational, civil discourse and instead belongs on the ash heap of history.

      Thanks for the other platform mentions. I will check them out.

      And one day we will get a good payment processor solution, maybe with blockchain technology. It will just take time. But yes, be nimble enough to migrate if necessary.

            • Owen Benjamin spouted anti-Semitic nonsense including:

              Jews control the media, Hollywood and pornography and that no one but the Jews wants any of them. Benjamin also said that no gas chambers were ever used during the Holocaust and that if the Jews end up with power they will destroy civilization.

              Not only is this categorically untrue, it’s hateful rhetoric that has no place in modern, rational public discourse. How is any of this a “call to account”? If he had said it’s wrong for the Israelis to be killing Palestinians I would have agreed with him. But he didn’t. And by so doing he violated the terms of service of a private company. It’s not censorship. It’s only censorship if the government restricts free speech. Private companies can do whatever they want.

  2. Subscription models work for distributors, not creators.
    (Unless you’re DWS or another pulp speed creator.)

    In every single case of a successful subscription service (Netflix, KU, Spotify, old time book clubs, Harlequin paperback club, etc) the distriutor has agregated content from a *large* group of creators to maintain a steady stream of new content atop an archive that together *exceeds* subscribers ability to consume. It has to. Otherwise it will be destroyed by churn. Success demands scale.

    (Churn: consumers signing up for a month or two, binging everything that catches their interest, and cancelling, usually moving on to a different subscription.)

    Look at the most successful *paid* services operating today (NETFLIX, DISNEY+, HBO, HULU, GAMEPASS, SPOTIFY) and compare them to the failures and laggards (QUIBI, APPLE TV+, CBS ALL ACCESS) and they all share the inability to retain paying customers indefinitely, month after month after month.

    Netflix has such a deep pipeline (as befits pioneers; they started building up their exclusive content ten years ago) that they can release entire series on one day and several movies each week. Something for every major taste category (action, drama, romcom, SF&F, etc) allows them to charge one of the largest fees and have one of the smaller churn rates. Most of the newcomers are forced to spread their releases out, usually one episode a week, one movie every once in a while. Disney is now *starting* to build up their creative pipeline to where they may have one new episode a week moving forward but they’re not there just yet. Fortunately, they have a massive archive/backlist of over 25,000 hours of family-friendly content. HBOMAX is just about the only player with an archive that deep. (Apple has a couple dozen series and a few hundred hours of total content. If most of their subscribers weren’t free, churn would be eating them alive.)

    In Music, Spotify has some 25M songs in their archive; in books KindleUnlimited, some 4M;in gaming, GAMEPASS 300 titles that run 30-80 hours each to complete. And Microsoft has been buying studios and backlists with a vengeance, trying to get to where tbey can release one new 20-40 hour game a month.

    So any author dreaming of getting into subscriptions…?
    Alone or with partners? With or without backlist archives?
    How to deal with churn?

    Sorry, but unless you’re talking a dozen or more authors with deep backlists that can collectively release several books a month it is going to be a challenge to compete with DWS, much less KU, to say nothing of the other established timesink services out there.

    Subscriptions are built on scale and velocity.
    Not a model for a cottage industry.

    And if you think publishing is different, look to the magazines. The ones still around.

  3. weren’t there a bunch of book subscription sites, and didn’t they all go under? Or something? How do book subscription sites compete with libraries?

    • They don’t.

      Subscriptions rely on people staying subscribed (and paying) long term.
      Libraries don’t; they rely on the kindness of strangers.
      Or, to put it different: libraries depend on indirect funding–subscriptions on direct payments.
      Different models, different futures.

      Oyster went under but Scribd is still around. Not that they’re big enough to notice.
      There’s a couple in Europe, local only, and limited.

    • When I no longer had any university affiliation, I paid the university libraries for privileges. It was a paid subscription.

  4. And, once again, this is something where Baen is a step ahead of the rest of the competition, though it’s not exactly a subscription model.
    What they do have is a “monthly book bundle” where you can get five or six ebooks that are a mix of new releases and backlist titles for, at present, 18 bucks. It’s a pretty good way to get people to check out new authors and to get their backlist a little more visibility, and is something that companies like Tor or Roc would be well-advised to look into.

    • It was probably meant to be one, hence the original “WebScription” name but Monthly Bundle is more accurate. In that it is a precursor to the humble bundle deals.
      Their best trick is how they mix in a new release frok a bigger author with books new and old from lesser known authors.
      The added visibility is bound to be useful.
      They feally ought to give UNIVERSE another try. With Asimov and other (print-driven) genre magazines fading, their digital only model might get traction now.

  5. Thanks for sharing, PG, and for adding your thoughts. My post was intended to be thought-provoking and I see it has done that. Subscription models may not work for every writer, nor are they intended to rival our Amazon income. They are just an additional stream of income if we choose to develop it.

  6. And what do *readers* get?
    At what price?

    The reason distributor subscriptions work is scale. Which is why the ones that succeed rack up subscribers by the tens of millions. If a writer can do that they don’t need Patreon, tip jars, or anything else.

    And no, patronage pledges are no more a real subscription than Youtube channel signups.

    Reader’s Digest Condensed books and the early decades of the BookClubs were actual subscriptions, ongoing transactions delivering significant content regularly. The genre magazines (that survive) are subscriptions. Newsletters and mailing lists? Sort-of. Passing the hat for a perk or two…

    Sorry, but no.

    • To be clear: The proper term is Paid Sponsorship.
      Conflating it with proper subscriptions does neither side a favor.
      When it comes to money, keeping things clear is usually best.

      • Thank you! I was mystified by the idea of subscriptions applying to authors as a business model. It would have made sense if the idea was “how indies can get their books into a Book-of-the-Month Club,” and similar distribution scenarios. But as the OP is written, no.

        • Just saw this.
          (Thought the thread was dead.)

          Patronage is nothing new: the romans ran most of their society that way. So do a lot of countries and political parties. Most, in fact.

          Patronage of the arts is nothing new either.
          Most notable during the Rennaisance in europe but it’s always been around.
          Applying it online as crowdfunding is newish.
          So is playing the guitar in subway stations and passing the hat.

          Whatever works.
          But accuracy helps.

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