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The Subscription Economy

I enjoyed this post since it made me think about subscription challenges in libraries.

Not only media – the ‘Subscription Economy’ is growing

PaidContent: More and more, our lives are wrapped around subscriptions, and that’s not just in online media. You can now subscribe to software (e.g., phones, entertainment (e.g. Netflix), cars (e.g. Zipcar), computing power and storage (e.g. Amazon). The relationship between people and businesses, and the products and services they use, is no longer a one-time event.

The implications of this shift—from an economy based largely on one-time purchases to one based ever more on subscriptions—are profound and ultimately stand to benefit both businesses and consumers.”

In the library bubble I think that we sometimes tend to look at the shift from ownership of things like magazine articles and book to subscription models as something unique in our sector.

It’s just not true all the time.

I know of subscription models (and use many of them myself) for movies (Netflix), software, blogs, offline and online storage, and more but I hadn’t thought of the Zipcars as being car subscriptions but I guess an annual rental/subscription fee is quite that. The movement to subscription models has some benefits:

1. You’re not locked in forever (or until it wears out) as a purchase can sometimes do.
2. You have the opportunity to offload the ‘keeping up-to-date factor’ on things that need replacing too often at high initial cost (software, servers, devices, etc,) or upgrade with annoying rapidity (like software and phone models).
3. You want to spread your investment out evenly in the annual budget over many years instead of investing in risky decisions that have higher upfront costs and commitments to servers vs browser access.
4. You want to reduce the risk of making a poor decision and committing to one choice that may be overtaken by innovation, trends, cometition, time and events.
5. Access to bigger collections at less cost per user annually (like with the periodical experience)
6. Aggregated relationships with book publishers as has happened with periodical article access and standardization of e-formats and metadata and OpenURL compliance, etc.
7. Bulk influence on copyright and licensing of larger assemblages of content (a la Tasini, etc.)
8. Etc.

So, if we framed our considerations about e-books in the same way that frame our decisions about periodical article research collections, then what would we think about subscriptions to books? We often already subscribe to rapidly changing book collections like IT books since they disappear often and need to have multiple users as reference copies. Fiction books are another choce that rental collections for print have existed for many years since this year’s high volume bestseller is next year’s shelf sitter in the library. How about DVD’s where circulation of top titles declines rapidly after a year? Are research and non-fiction collections or archival collections better as subscriptions based on usage or potential user bases? Textbooks can be bought in print or e-copies. They can also be subscribed to or rented in short ad long term periods. Many can be bought or rented in part – just a chapter for instance. I hear many people who are unaware of the full range of option available form some publishers and who assume that the knowledge formed a decade ago hasn’t staledated.

Anyway, there are certainly many subscription models out there and there will be more set into experimental mode and pilots in the future. If we keep open minds and experiment and make choices not inspired by 20th century print era dogma but by a focus on user demands and needs and budgetary flexibility, then we might make progress faster through experience with emerging new models.

My real concern is that the Netflix subscription model where I can have unlimited access to all films on the service for a simple, inexpensive monthly fee. Do you think Apple, Amazon, B&N, Google Books, or whomever could set up a similar model for some or all e-books? What would that mean to libraries if our key readers move to that model which is less than the cost of the gas or parking to visit the library?


Posted on: February 23, 2011, 7:53 am Category: Uncategorized

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