Report: Do Book Subscriptions Work for Authors and Publishers?

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Words by Chris Russell, photos by Nicole Kavanaugh.

The opening Byte The Book of 2016 pitted Justo Hidalgo, co-founder of Spanish start-up 24Symbols, against literary agent Meg Davis in an attempt to throw some light on the contentious topic of subscription services in the publishing industry.  The discussion was chaired by Adam Freudenheim, MD of Pushkin Press.

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Typefi  sponsored our first event of 2016. Our writer-in-residence with pen in hand is in red sitting in front of Typefi and they are from right to left, Chandi Perera, Jason Mitchell and Toby Waller.

24Symbols, a subscription service that enables users to read digital books on the web, has enjoyed steady success since launching in 2011. Once dubbed “Spotify for eBooks”, the company has thrived in its native Spain, while other services, such as Oyster, have fallen by the wayside. Co-founder Justo Hidalgo believes this is partly due to their tendency to look outside of the publishing industry for support and inspiration. “When we’re deciding how to compete,” he explained, “we don’t look at our competitors, such as Amazon. We look at Angry Birds”.
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Our speakers from left to right, Justo Hidalgo, Meg Davis and Adam Freudenheim

Literary agent Meg Davis agreed that 24Symbols was a great idea, but was less than optimistic about the impact of subscription services on the industry as a whole. The vast majority of writers, she explained, will lose money, as they generally do when a new right is introduced to the marketplace. She also questioned the scalability of 24Symbols, suggesting that, despite the popularity of Netflix and Spotify, most readers have no idea that subscription services even exist in the publishing world.
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The speakers in full flow in our gorgeous new venue in the Soho Bar at The Groucho Club.

24Symbols, however, are diligent about attracting new customers. They’ve partnered with mobile carriers, who send bulk text messages to their users offering subscription at a discounted rate; similarly, Justo praised a mobile partner in Germany who had taken a promotional bus town to town, recruiting new subscribers in their thousands. Once customers are onboard, 24Symbols gather as much data as they can – which books people read, what time of day they read, how fast they read – and employ a discoverability service to tailor content to their users’ preferences. When you don’t have the funds to offer all the best-selling titles, added Justo, you have to find out which books your audience want, and work from there.

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Yvonne Barlow of Hookline Books with her question to the panel.

When questions opened to the floor, one audience member suggested that digital subscription services are simply the contemporary equivalent of book clubs, and it was odd that so many industry players were suspicious of them. But Meg was quick to quash the comparison. “The difference is that book clubs were run on a model that actually worked,” she argued, “and digital has changed all revenue models”. Subscription might be beneficial for the JK Rowlings of this world – who have already taken over the planet – but it will leave mid-list authors scrambling for every penny, if they aren’t already.

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But really Byte the Book is all about the networking.

In response, Justo pointed out that Spotify had been around for six years before it made any kind of dent on the music business. “Industry disruption,” he explained, “takes effort and time”, and 24Symbols, it seems, are playing the long game.

Now that’s a lesson just about everyone in publishing can get on board with.

If you enjoyed this report and want to keep up with the latest happenings in publishing as well as network with publishers and authors alike keep yourself posted by visiting our Events page here. Members of Byte the Book get in free to The Groucho Club events and you can join us for just £75 a year here.

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