Selling ebooks the old fashioned way-offering a fixed price for one digital tome that the reader owns for eternity-is the tried-and-true approach most publishers take. But just as some consumers prefer to lease a car, prepay for a set amount of mobile minutes, or sign up for movies streamed monthly, there is a niche audience that's interested in an unconventional approach to the conventional acquisition of electronic books-and an array of providers capable of catering to this demand.
One newer pricing strategy is ebook subscriptions, offered by up-and-comers like Entitle and Emily Books. The latter's service works like a book club in that it sends members a link to one new handpicked title every month ($13.99 a month) for a year. Members of the former have permanent access to the book of their choice they download, even if they cancel their membership ($14.99 to $27.99 a month), unlike typical subscription services that bar access to content once the customer stops paying for membership.
Readers seeking a Netflix-like model can also turn to Oyster, which provides unlimited access to more than 100,000 ebooks on iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch for $9.95 monthly.
"Traditionally speaking, ebook readers have only been able to buy books in an a la carte fashion up to now. In applying a subscription model, we are able to pass on a greater savings to the end user-typically 40 to 65 percent off what they are currently paying a la carte," says Bryan Batten, CEO of Entitle.
Publishers who aren't ready to dive into a subscription platform can always try a digital sales tactic that's surprisingly simple but potentially profitable: free. By offering chapters of or the complete ebook gratis, you can hook the reader into purchasing more of the same or a similar product. Alternatively, you can require the consumer to register on your website to receive a no-charge electronic title and then sell that information to marketers or use the hits to interest companies to advertise on your site.
To help them stand out from the pack, digital content providers should be considering these and other unorthodox approaches to attracting readers, says Bill Gladstone, owner of Waterfront Digital Press. "Big publishers are able to promote their books, but if you're small and can't afford the Random House type promotional strategy, you need to do something different to get people's attention," he says. "But you need critical mass to offer a subscription service. Our company might consider that route when we have more titles to offer."
Publishers need to recognize how quickly the digital reading landscape is changing.
"In [the ebook industry's] infancy, people read ebooks on dedicated e-readers. This habit is changing rapidly, as the adoption of tablets is on the rise and dedicated e-readers are on the fall," says Batten. "This creates an issue for publishers, as now they are fighting to capture the attention of a potential reader with so many other forms of digital media, such as music, movies, apps, games, etcetera. There are so many distractions out there now, it is imperative that publishers act quickly to narrow potential readers' focus toward reading and not allow them to drift into other digital media. (A subscription model) is a great solution to this problem, as it captivates readers' attention again."
Allison Reber, communication director for Aquafadas, says the most interesting ebook pricing models are those that support various formats. "For example, Bayard, a children's book publisher, has developed dedicated content for print, digital and web access," says Reber. "The company strives to increase readers' loyalty by providing them a well-rounded variety of offerings, and they manage their reader community by engaging readers on different platforms, including print, smartphones, tablets and the web."
Publishers also need to be careful about protecting their stakeholders-the authors who provide the content-when they adopt an all-you-can-eat model. Sharon Geltner, author of the ebook Charity Bashed, says many writers are skittish about participating in rental or subscription pricing models.
"Consider the financial implications," says Geltner. "There would have to be a huge volume and scale to make digital book rentals profitable when buying a book is already as low as it can go. Consider that some digital authors won't even allow their local libraries to carry electronic versions because these loans undercut an already terrible market with this race-to-the-bottom approach to price-cutting for ebooks."
Unfortunately for publishers, however, "few pricing methods will work, no matter how novel they are, if price isn't the bottom line consideration for the consumer," Geltner says.
Nevertheless, Batten and others like him insist that a tiered subscription model similar to Netflix in its DVD days or Audible.com offers the best value for consumers. First, it doesn't allow customers to feel that there is no value to an individual title, but at the same time it also allows customers to receive cost savings. Second, it allows publishers to set a price floor for ebooks that offers the following value proposition: If you commit to a certain number of books, you will then get a discount valued at a certain dollar amount. Lastly, if priced right, it can allow publishers the ability to convert a low volume customer into one who makes multiple purchases or downloads per month.
Advocates of subscription models say consumers are eager for an ebook subscription option because it is convenient, it allows them to try a wider variety of products and dabble more into uncharted content territories, and it removes the purchasing decision-making process.
"You are getting something because it interests you, not because it is cheaper or more expensive," says Batten.
Whether it's subscriptions, free, a la carte, or a combination approach, Bayard noted that it's possible to find a winning ebook pricing model "if you provide good content to the right audience. Publishers can better understand the digital market using their existing audience and content that has already been proven successful."
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