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E-book subscription services have tricky business model

Annie Baxter Sep 22, 2015
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The e-book subscription service Oyster is calling it quits after just a couple years, saying it will provide refunds to customers who want them. The company charged $9.95 for unlimited access to about a million book titles.

But critics charge the available titles were sometimes disappointing.

“You’re not getting quite the range that a million books might suggest,” says Lorraine Shanley, president of Market Partners International, a publishing industry consulting firm. 

Shanley says people who get the most bang for their buck with e-book subscription services are heavy readers — many of them into genre books. But subscription services can’t actually afford to have scores of genre readers, like fans of romance novels, gobbling up books.

“It’s wonderful to say you have a million books so long as people didn’t actually read a million books,” she says.

E-book subscription services have to pay publishers for every book that’s read, according to Jim Milliot, editorial director of Publishers Weekly. In that way, he says, they operate similar to gyms, which benefit from members paying their monthly fees but not using the services.

“They’re playing a dangerous business model type of game,” he says.

Milliot says a competing service, Scribd, had to pull some of its romance titles because readers were devouring too many of them. 

As Oyster unwinds, Scribd and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited are the last e-book subscription services remaining, though some in the tech world speculate that Google could try to get into the game. 

For readers who don’t want to pay for e-books, by subscription or otherwise, there are some options. Project Gutenberg has collected tens of thousands of books whose copyrights have expired. But its catalog is limited to older works. 

And a growing number of public libraries offer e-books. But Lorraine Shanley notes that libraries limit the number of e-book copies that can be loaned out, just as they do with print editions.

“You’re still in line waiting for the book to become available,” Shanley says.

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