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International Insights: Subscription

International Insights: Subscription

For this week's edition of the Alliance of Independent Authors International Insights hosted by Mark Williams of The New Publishing Standard, we’re moving on to subscription models.

Mark Williams of The New Publishing Standard

Subscription. The very word sends shiver the spines of some Indies—especially those who have tried Kindle Unlimited (KU) and found it didn’t meet their expectations. And yet other indies swear by KU’s benefits and happily sacrifice a wider audience to be exclusive with Amazon.

Not here to discuss all the many pros and cons of that strategy, you can find a couple of ALLi posts on the topic of being exclusive or going wide on ALLi's blog and podcast here and here. But there are a couple of points we need to keep in mind as internationalist indies looking to conquer the world.

First and foremost, of course, is that Amazon does not give us global reach—even with its retail side (see ALLi International Insights post on Amazon here). When authors opt into Kindle Unlimited (Amazon’s exclusive reader subscription service), we simultaneously opt out of a potential audience that dwarfs Amazon’s reach many times over.

But all that still leaves the problem that, as we all know, Kindle Unlimited is the only show in town. Back in the early 2010s Oyster and Scribd went head to head in the subscription game, but Oyster soon folded, and KU finished off any chance Scribd ever had of being taken seriously. Or so we might think, reading some of the indie press. But as ever, reality is often a very different and far more interesting tale, especially for internationalist plans with global goals.

So let’s kick off with a quick look at where Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service is available: US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, India, China, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and Australia. Kindle China is of course not an option for KDP users, so we can exclude that here, leaving 13 countries. Note Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Singapore, Amazon Saudi Arabia and Amazon United Arab Emirates do not have KU, and in fact the latter three do not even have a Kindle store. That’s still an impressive show – thirteen key markets where we can reach readers through KU is not to be sneezed at, and if we have local-language content all the better.

But… and this is a big but… we cannot opt in and out of KU for this or that country. It’s all or nothing, and all means being exclusive with Amazon for our enrolled ebooks.

That’s fine for indies who want the easy life, and a sacrifice worth making for those indies at the top of their game in the Amazon markets, who—have no doubt—can make serious money from KU and pick up bonuses as well.

But for most of us it’s a business decision. The good news is, it applies on a title by title basis. We can have Book A in KU and Book B wide, and of course we only contract to ninety day stints, so can jump in and out of KU whenever it suits us, after our three months are up. That of course is the perfect way to get the worst of both worlds, but that is also beyond the scope of this essay, so let’s get back on track.

As an unlimited subscription service, consumers pay a fixed fee each month for unlimited access to the KU catalogue in the given countries. For consumers the only downside—if they are avid readers—is that the selection of content is limited. Very few big name authors are in KU, and that limits its attraction, but even so it’s fair to say that KU is a powerhouse in publishing. While Amazon doesn’t share its subscriber numbers it has told us that in 2019, for example, KU paid out over $300 million in royalties to participating authors—that is to say, indies and small presses using KDP.

We also compete with Amazon imprint authors and big name authors like JK Rowling who get paid regular rates, not page-read rates (so at least not eating into that $300 million). So, top earners can do very well out of KU.

Not here to discuss page read rates and comparative retail revenue other than a reminder that if we opt into KU then we are exclusive with Amazon, that’s not just missing out on all the retail opportunities from Apple, Google Play and Nook (see here), or from Kobo (see here), but also from myriad other retailers, digital libraries and subscription services around the world, not least in countries where Amazon isn’t an option. For a closer look at Amazon’s reach and limitations, see here.

Before we leave Amazon, we still have Audible to consider. But Audible, of course, is not an unlimited subscription service, right? Well, no, except when it is.

In September, Audible launched, finally, in Spain, and with an unlimited service. It’s actually not the first time Audible has gone unlimited. It did so in Japan at launch, although that didn’t last long, and has been unlimited in Italy since 2016. But the Spain launch is significant in that it happens in 2020, at a time when the consumer love affair with unlimited subscription has never been stronger, while publishers—or rather, publishers in the US and UK—remain determined to keep the unlimited model at bay.

The launch also came shortly after Spotify announced it would be entering the US audiobook market.

And then there’s Audible Escape (formerly Audible Romance) which is about to close after three years of controversy. Since November 2017 has seen romance authors’ regular sales evaporate as readers realised they could get the exact same material for a one-off monthly fee, and Audible’s payout to authors often came nowhere near making up the difference.

As with KU, exclusivity was required by ACX–a digital lockdown that naturally suited Amazon, harmed the opposition, and left many indies feeling short-changed. Of course there are always winners and losers, but the narrative prevails that many authors—and by extension publishers generally—cannot make a meaningful income from subscription.

Yet as we see in the Nordics and elsewhere, publishers are making money from subscription, and there are several factors at play that make subscription viable for publishers.

First and foremost, once we step outside our Amazon comfort-zone there are no exclusivity requirements. When an indie puts titles into Scribd we can also do so in Storytel, Nextory, BookBeat, 24Symbols, Skoobe, Bookmate, Audioteka, Kobo Plus, Ubook, Legimi, Leamos, Nubleer, Perlego, Bidi… And that’s before we start looking at micro-subscription services in countries like the Czech Republic or Bangladesh or Norway or… And then there’s the specialist subscription services like Epic!, for example, that is used by 20 million children in the US alone.

Okay, so there’s no space here to go into details about each one. Rather, let me wind up this post with a look at some recent industry headlines that best illustrate the exciting opportunities in global subscription many indies are oblivious to, and many more treat as an afterthought.

It was in early 2019 that Scribd first hit the magical one-million subscribers mark. Safe to say it’s been growing since then, not least in the 2020 pandemic, which has seen interest in books on demand services rise everywhere. Scribd followed that up with a dedicated Scribd store launch in Mexico. And in November 2019 Scribd picked up $58 million in fresh funding, which as I said in TNPS at the time was a note of confidence in the model, not just the company.

And Scribd ended 2019 reporting 25% revenue growth, to over $100 million. Not bad going for a company the industry—and especially indie pundits—had written off back when Oyster folded in 2015, when Scribd was expected by many to rapidly follow suit. Yet at that time three Big Five publishers were reporting how delighted they were with subscription. This from Publishers Weekly at the time Oyster announced it would close:

At last year’s (2014) Frankfurt Book Fair, HarperCollins’s CEO Brian Murray said e-book subscription services were the most promising of all its new ventures. “Subscription has turned out to be very successful in really merchandising and mining the backlist,” he said. Macmillan expanded its subscription offerings through Scribd and Oyster over the summer. And in a twist of timing, the announcement of Oyster’s demise came just days after S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy praised e-book subscription services during her keynote address at the BISG annual meeting in New York, telling attendees that Scribd and Oyster haven’t cannibalized S&S’s print sales, and were driving both revenue and discovery.

That quote should be seen in the context of at-the-time regular payouts for downloads, which of course was never going to be sustainable. But the clear takeaway from all that is that subscription opens up backlist and does not necessarily cannibalise regular sales. But let’s get back to more recent developments in subscription.

In October 2019, Nextory and Bookbeat were respectively reporting 130% and 127% growth. “Digital books are hotter than ever,” said Nextory CEO Shadi Bitar. The same month, Nextory launched in Denmark, and ended 2019 by launching in Switzerland and Austria. Nextory was already in Finland, Germany and home country Sweden.

In March 2020, Nextory was reporting “fantastic growth” as it picked up $6 million in new funding, and in April shared some stunning numbers- 94% revenue growth and 110% subscriber growth. In July 2020, we had the Q2 results: 98% revenue growth and a 58% subscriber boost. And in September 2020, Nextory reported a 68% leap in new subscribers over the summer.

Meanwhile Bookbeat in July reported an 82% revenue boost in Q2 of this year as it launched in Poland. Bookbeat expects to have 400,000 subscribers and $50 million in revenue end 2020. This after Bookbeat had started the year reporting an “incredible” 2019 when it saw 114% growth, $33 million in revenue and topped 250,000 subscribers.

And then there’s Storytel, which was my TNPS Story of the Year in December 2019 and with good reason. In January 2020, Storytel Turkey announced a 315% increase in consumption. Turkey being one of 20 Storytel markets as the year began, but days later Storytel was announcing it planned to be in 40 markets by 2023, and expected to round off 2020 with 1. 5 million subscribers and $200 million in revenue, having hit 1.1 million subscribers as 2019 ended. Earlier, in October 2019, Storytel had juggled its finances to get a $50 million credit facility, and in February 2020 Storytel obtained a further $96.5 million in new funding.

In July 2020, Storytel—already operating Storytel Arabia from the UAE—acquired the Arabic-language audiobook subscription service Kitab Sawti and announced plans for Storytel MENA (Middle East North Africa). The same month Storytel announced plans for launches in Thailand in 2020 and Indonesia in 2021, adding for good measure that it had just hit.1.23 million subscribers and revenue was up 43%. And also in July Storytel Korea reported 250% growth amid fierce competition on the Korean peninsula.

In August 2020, Storytel Russia was sharing the news that consumers were hot on detective fiction and fantasy this year. And in September, Storytel acquired the Hebrew digital books outfit iCast, and announced a Storytel Israel launch for Q1 2021. And bringing us full up to date, a Storytel Belgium launch was set for end 2020.

Staying in the Nordics, where Storytel, Bookbeat and Nextory are all based, September also saw the first ever digital Gothenburg Book Fair (which pulled in 373,000 visitors), accompanied by the latest numbers from Sweden, which make stunning reading with 60% of all book sales now happening via subscription services. That figure may drop as we head into Christmas, but that will be short-lived.

So much more that could be said about global subscription, but my time is up, so let me just end this post by mentioning YouScribe, a Paris-based subscription service that thought it might be fun to offer subscription across French-speaking Africa.

YouScribe kicked off its Africa adventure in 2019, launching in Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Madagascar and Cameroon, to the mild bemusement of the few industry commentators that even noticed. By end 2019 YouScribe had already picked up 300,000 subscribers in Africa.

In February 2020 YouScribe launched in Burkina Faso, and the most recent figures suggest over half a million subscribers in Africa, and growing fast. But don’t be so surprised. Africa has over half a billion people online (see ALLi International Insights Africa here), so YouScribe has barely scratched the surface.

No time here to explore all the amazing books-on-demand developments elsewhere in the world. Let me just end this post by saying the global book market isn’t just bigger than we think. It’s much, much bigger than we think, and it’s still growing.

Up-coming International Book Fairs and Festivals

(See this post on how indies can reap rewards from international book fairs).


Sep 28-Oct 7 Indonesia International Book Fair online

Oct 1-4 Big Bad Wolf Sri Lanka online

Oct 1-4 (India) Delhi Book Fair

Oct 2-18 (Spain) Madrid Book Fair online

Oct 14-18 (Germany) Frankfurt Book Fair online

Oct 22-25 (Nigeria) Ake Arts & Book Festival online

Oct 30-31 (India) Delhi Book Fair online

Oct 30-Nov 9 (Algeria) Algiers International Book Fair online

Nov 04-14 (UAE) Sharjah International Book Fair in-person

Nov 24-30 (Philippines) Manila International Book Fair online


ALLi notes on stores mentioned in this post:

Kindle Unlimited – available via Kindle Direct Publishing and BookBaby

Audible – via ACX, Findaway, StreetLib

Scribd – via BookBaby, Draft2Digital, Ebook Partnership, Findaway, PublishDrive, StreetLib, Smashwords

Storytel – Ebook Partnership, Findaway,

Nextory – Findaway, StreetLib

BookBeat – Findaway, StreetLib

Bokus Play – Findaway

24Symbols – Draft2Digital, Findaway, PublishDrive, StreetLib

Skoobe – no easy access as yet

Bookmate – Ebook Partnership, PublishDrive

Audioteka – no easy access as yet

Kobo Plus – via Kobo Writing Life, Dreaft2Digital, PublishDrive, StreetLib. See this ALLi International Insights post for more.

Ubook – Findaway, StreetLib

Legimi – StreetLib

Leamos – Findaway, StreetLib

Nubleer – StreetLib

Perlego – PublishDrive, StreetLib

Bidi – Findaway, StreetLib

YouScribe – StreetLib


N.B. This list is not exhaustive but is accurate to the best of my knowledge. So here’s a call out to you, the reader, or perhaps our friends at the various aggregators. Please do submit additional info or corrections in comments so we can update the list as we go forward.


Author: Mark Williams

Indie and traditionally-published author and journalist writing beneath picture postcard blue skies in The Gambia, West Africa.


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