Independent Publisher Turns to Subscriptions to Boost Sales
As they try to evolve along with a dynamic marketplace, many book publishers are experimenting and adapting their business models to try to find new formulas for success. Cave Creek, Ariz.-based Unbridled Books is one of those book publishers, who in March launched a subscription book program. For an annual subscription, subscribers can choose to receive six titles for a cost of $100, or three titles for $60. Subscriber perks include one free Unbridled backlist of your choice, 25-percent off all Unbridled Books for the term of the subscription, and a subscribers-only e-newsletter, which is distributed twice a year.
Unbridled Books’ Co-publisher Greg Michalson spoke with Book Business Extra on why he feels a subscription-based business model can work for book publishers, as well as how direct subscription sales can help spur their retail counterpart.
Book Business Extra: Why does Unbridled Books believe a subscription model will work for its business?
Greg Michalson: It’s something we’ve long talked about doing. We’ve worked hard to create Unbridled Books as a brand that readers can trust that the books we publish will share a consistently high standard of literary values across the board. That isn’t to say everyone will love everything we publish, as we offer a wide range of reading experiences, but they can depend on a certain level of quality no matter which of our books they pick up.
We’ve long believed that readers of quality fiction are open to buying literature by subscription. I come from a literary magazine background, for which the subscriber base is the lifeblood. Those subscribers are a primary market for the books we publish at Unbridled. And from that experience, it was clear to us there are many more potential readers of high-quality fiction and nonfiction out there if you can reach them. The hardest job we have is putting the right book in front of the right reader at the right time.
Extra: Will this direct method of selling books complement retail sales channels or cannibalize them?
Michalson: Definitely complement. As an independent publisher, we’re dedicated first and foremost to the independent bookseller and don’t want to do anything that might hurt that relationship. They're our natural partners in this business, and we continue to make a large commitment to fostering that relationship. In fact, we’re examining ways we might be able to use the subscription service in partnership with individual independent booksellers so that readers could subscribe but receive their books via their local stores, for example.
But there are many, many places around the country that don’t have access to an independent bookseller—or to a retail book chain, for that matter. Even when they do, a lot of those stores aren’t able to stock everything we publish. Increasingly, the book community’s conversation about books is taking place on the Internet. Activity on our own website is mushrooming. Many of those people want to buy online. We’re simply trying to cater to as many different buying preferences as we can. For the most part, those buyers who have convenient local bookstores and are in the habit of buying books from them will continue to support those stores. And we’re all in favor of that.
Extra: Have you found that customers of your subscription program differ from your retail buyers? If so, how?
Michalson: For the most part, these are people who don’t have a convenient, local bookstore to visit, or people who prefer to buy online. So, primarily, these are customers brick-and-mortar stores aren’t reaching. They’re also the customers who are interested enough overall in the kind of books we publish to build an ongoing relationship with us.
This isn’t a zero-sum game, and we don’t believe we’re taking any sales away from the traditional markets. Rather, we’re adding new customers. If we sell a book by subscription to a customer in Blue Eye, Missouri, for example, it doesn’t mean one less sale for a store in, say, St. Louis. But it might lead to more word-of-mouth surrounding a title and eventually increase in-store sales as well.
Extra: Are all Unbridled books available for purchase via its subscription program? Do you believe a certain category of books works better for a subscription model than others?
Michalson: We’re still obviously experimenting with the selections. We want to offer some of our best-selling titles when we can, coupled with the gem that might not be getting as much retail attention as we think it deserves. The way we’ve structured the subscriptions in service of our front-list titles, we're hopeful that the early sales will feed buzz for the books. We also hope to be able to make special offers to subscribers in each cycle, offers that might revitalize some backlist titles … and help further push books that are beginning to gain momentum.
Extra: What results can you provide to show the company's subscription program is working?
Michalson: We’re really at the beginning of this process and don’t yet have the kind of data about these things that would be meaningful. But indications are that our effort is potentially very valuable.
Extra: What future do you see for book publishers when it comes to direct, subscription-based selling to consumers?
Michalson: This is one tool available … to develop ongoing relationships that can lead to repeat business. It’s a way to reach out to the dedicated customer who otherwise doesn’t have easy access to traditional stores, or is a shut-in for whatever reason, and who might not otherwise even hear about some titles. Especially in this time of industry flux, we owe it to ourselves, our authors and our customers to take advantage of any opportunity to put our books into the right hands.