Friday, 22 August 2014

Subscription services – good or evil?

Technology has driven huge changes in the way that we purchase and use media. Subscription services have been hugely successful for films, to the point of driving Blockbuster into extinction. Videogames are now dipping their toe into the waters of subscription, with the PS4 and EA having their own models (interesting because the EA deal isn’t available on the PS4, and we’re seeing the console manufacturers themselves and individual [albeit very large] studios trying their hand at it).

It’s worth mentioning that certain new technological developments seem very popular (Photo Mode in the Remastered version of The Last Of Us, and easy screenshots/video capture on the new consoles) whereas others (always on internet, Kinect) were derided so much they were dropped or made optional.

Now subscription services are coming to books.

Since e-readers and superior screens first came out an industry which was almost unchanged (from a consumer perspective) since the first printing presses has undergone substantial change. Books can now be purchased for less via the internet, and sometimes for free.

However, e-books have presented a substantial challenge to publishers, and traditional bookstores have had to try and deal with this whilst at the same time competing with the behemoth that is Amazon.

Authors have never had it so easy when it comes to getting published (you can, almost literally, do it yourself). However, getting noticed has perhaps never been harder, because there are so many new authors each individual is a small drop in an ever larger ocean.

Despite publishing my own stuff (and hopefully getting some traditionally published work out there soon), I am immensely old-fashioned. I don’t even own a mobile phone, and think DLC is the work of Satan.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m worried about subscription services. The rate of remuneration for authors is a serious concern, and how it will affect publishers. Will we see individual publishers setting up their own services (akin to EA in videogames)? Will some content (perhaps short stories) become available only via subscription?

Consumer behaviour will be critical to the success or failure of any model. The pricing of a subscription (probably annual, given a monthly approach would only be of use to voracious readers) will be a major factor, but there’s the rub. If the fee is low, how can authors expect to make more than a pittance? If the fee is high, then people will opt to buy individual books because it’ll work out cheaper.

Things are already difficult for smaller publishers and new authors, and if the ‘big boys’ end up dominating a new subscription-based landscape then it could become a gated community. A decade or two ago agents and publishers were gatekeepers, deciding who was worthy and unworthy to be published. We can argue the toss about whether that was better than the self-publishing world we now have, but things have changed.

If major publishers and/or retailers start pushing for subscription in various ways (such as hiking the prices of their books so the subscription fee looks relatively more reasonable, or making later series instalments available only via subscription) then readers may stop scouring virtual bookshelves for individual books they want and instead opt for one or two subscriptions.

It just feels inherently wrong, to me. If someone writes a book you like, buy it, and they get some money (the retailer and agent/publisher also taking a slice). The seller, creator and middlemen all get a slice of the cake. If retailers and publishers shift to subscription I feel the author’s slice will become smaller.

And the harder it is for authors to make any money, the less likely it is we’ll have more good writers.

Maybe I’m wrong, and my instinctive distrust of changes in this area is just my spidey sense tingling for no good reason. But right now, I’m suspicious.


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