Subscription Model in Publishing: Not Like Netflix/Spotify

This week, we talked about the Medium’s subscription model during the class. In The rationalization of publishing, Medium’s founder Evan Williams believed that since publishing could not be supported by advertisements alone currently, a subscription model will be the best solution. He compared this model to Netflix/Spotify and argued that:

  1. People who care about understanding themselves and the world will pay for information
  2. People who care about reading will pay for texts as they pay for videos and audios
  3. People will pay for high-quality content rather than reading free but poor-quality content online

I agreed with his arguments. However, I do not think that TV/music is an appropriate analogy for publishing. In my opinion, reading has a lot of differences from watching TV or listening to music. Therefore, publishers should be careful when applying the subscription model.

First, the market for publishers tends to be smaller than TV or music producers. There are fewer people who read than who watch TV or listen to music.

According to the Pew Research, “Overall, Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read four books in the past 12 months”. Let us assume they spend 10 hours on each book (it is hard to assume the average because depending on the genre and page number, it will take a different length of time to finish a book), then an average American spends about 120 hours on reading in a year and a typical American only spends 40 hours on reading in a year.

Let us look at the data for Netflix. By the end of 2017, Netflix had 117.58 million subscribers. It also claimed that in average, its users watched 140 million hours of content on a day. According to the numbers, the averages time for one subscriber to spend on Netflix on one day is a little over 50 minutes.

Then what about the time that people spend on digital reading?

In 2017, Medium only had 60 million monthly readers (not exactly subscribers) and in total, these users spent 4.5 million hours reading on Medium in per month. This means that each reader only spends 4.5 mins on Medium per month.

A big difference, huh?

The subscription model works for Netflix or Spotify because a huge number of consumers watches TV or listens to music now. For a keen online reader, paying a subscription fee to get the unlimited access to good quality articles is a great deal but how many keen online readers are there? For people who only read four books a year, unlimited access to books is not very appealing. However, they might be one of the one-time book buyers out there in the market which the subscription model does not work for.

Another significant difference between reading and the other two media is that there are better alternatives for readers rather than subscribing to a certain platform. If I quit Netflix or Amazon Prime today, I do not know where to find a better solution. I could go to a movie theatre which only provides me with a few options, or I could pay for a cable which would be very troublesome and expensive to get considering I don’t even own a nice TV now. Without the subscription model, I can still read a printed book, an ebook or listen to an audiobook, either bought by myself or borrowed from libraries or friends.

I am not saying that subscription model would not work for publishers. Except Medium, there are also subscription services for Ebooks such as Kindle Unlimited, Oyster or Scribd. In the article Subscription Services for E-Books, the author pointed out that the sales of physical books are “fairly stable” and he concluded that “the reading public doesn’t get subscription e-book services — or at least doesn’t get them yet”. However, I think the readers did not get the subscription model because the physical books (or the experience of reading a physical book) are still in need.

Overall, I think the subscription model will work for publishers, but only to a certain extent. In the publishing world, the subscription model will not be as dominant as it in other fields such as TV or music.

3 Replies to “Subscription Model in Publishing: Not Like Netflix/Spotify”

  1. Hey Melody! Thanks for sharing your response to the blog prompt. I think you did a lot of research and factually supported your arguments well. I think I almost believe the same. It’s harder to be convinced in paying for something that seems so readily accessible (with torrenting and the library and other factors). Or even so, the trouble it takes to read a book if it isn’t in the library or if it’s really expensive in stores is something to be considered. I also wonder about the time it takes to produce these goods. One can create a new tv show episode within a week, but to produce the same high quality book? Some writers take years to publish! If we want quick and instant content, then the subscription model makes sense for me. It is also a way to hold all this content together to be easy for the user to maneuver through.

    But who am I to say? I still mooch off of my bf’s Netflix.

  2. I really like your points here, particularly the research you did on average reading and Netflix watching times (I watch way too much Netflix, I now realize). I agree with you that a subscription model will be more difficult for publishers to use, as most people already pay taxes to use the library or to purchase their physical books. One thing I will say is that subscription boxes seem to be popular in certain book genres, like YA, because the books are bundled with other products and art that make the costs more reasonable to consumers. What do you think of subscription boxes? Have you ever got one?

  3. Thank you for this well-thought out argument! This is a great example of a blog post for our class. You have taken the readings and then made your own argument in response. Your blog post reads well on its own (that is, you don’t need to have read the course readings to understand it). I pointed out a few examples of places where I thought you were making a false comparison, but overall, your argument is clear and well-researched.

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