The New Ownership Of Book & Subscriptions

Corporate libraries have undergone a huge shift over the last couple of decades. The paper based library had to re-invent itself as a digital resource. For years now, information that used to be the domain of the library not only went digital but also physically left the library and landed on individual desktops, and more recently on cell phones, iPads and Kindles. A lot of this digital content cost you no more than your time to register with whatever service you needed. Now the New York Times is changing the game… which is hardly unexpected. The Times was one of the earliest “important” publications to go digital, and has had the most corporate impact for Fortune 500 firms due to their large circulation and the extensive number of executives with paper subscriptions.  Just about everyone I know now reads the free electronic version of the Times at least once or twice a week, if not every day. All that may change over the next couple of weeks as the Times moves to an (almost) all paid digital model.

It was inevitable that as more and more services became digital, especially the best of these services, that traditional media firms have got to make their digital services… paid services. We’ve all seen stories about the decline of print media. The decline has not just been in terms of readership of their print services, but in revenue as well. New services that started out as digital have been charging for years, and now it’s time for the free services to catch up. IPad, Nook and Kindle sales run into the millions and smartphones have begun delivering true 4G performance; it increasingly makes sense as an end user to spend more time using digital services. While this is one of the more important milestones of the move to digital, I find that I am instead particularly annoyed by a smaller, less important story.  

About a week ago, Harper Collins put a limit on the life of an e-book. Now when you buy one of their e-books, after it’s been read 26 times… “POOF” it’s gone. There’s not much that you’re going to read 26 times, except maybe an atlas, a dictionary or a cookbook. This is really aimed at public libraries, where a digital book could live on forever. But should a book disintegrate when you read it 26 times? It seems to me that there are physical books that have been checked out hundreds of times and are still in one piece. Alternatively, do publishers think of e-books as being more like their low-end products, like a paperback? The paperback revolution back in the 50’s and 60’s used the paperback as a way to sell a lot of materials cheaply, in a more or less disposable form. If e-books are the new paperback, I’m not sure what this reveals about the industry’s thinking, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly flattering.

If you run a corporate library, the plans made by Harper Collins may not interest you… at least not yet. However, this does feel like a significant shift. For years, traditional media providers have been giving us incentives and making encouraging gestures so that we move to digital. But now we’re seeing scattered signs of pullback and disincentives. Years ago you were a pioneer when you used digital media, and it felt good to be a pioneer. But now we’re just part of the crowd, the settlers who have grown comfortable with what we have. Unfortunately, just about the time you’ve settled into your space on the digital frontier, it’s time for the taxman to show up. And the taxman matters. How many digital Times (and other free media) subscribers do you have? Will they want the corporation to pick up the charge, if they start getting a bill? Like many organizations you probably outsourced the management of your subscription services long ago, not only maximizing subscription discounts but also letting someone else deal with your CFO’s missing copy of the Wall Street Journal. Will subscription services be an effective solution as more subscriptions turn digital? Will your e-subscriptions be offered as large a group discount as your paper subscriptions? Alternatively, do you have more to gain by forming a new alliance with your own IT department, so you can tackle the next call from a C-Suite officer with problems reading a news story on their Android phone?    

No real answers today, just a lot of questions about the next round of the digital revolution. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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1 Response to The New Ownership Of Book & Subscriptions

  1. Joel says:


    Joel here. Great post. Interesting that Harper is assigning its eBooks a predetermined life-span (reminds me of Logan’s Run). I hope this strategy is successful.

    I hope this because the unauthorized distribution of valuable content has a cheapening effect. This can be seen, very clearly, in the music space, where all attempts and piracy protection have failed and revenues for recorded music have cratered. But unlike the music industry, where innovative players are learning to pivot and use recorded music as a promotional item to open the door for concert, endorsement and a variety of other revenues, with book content, that’s the product, end of story. (Unless you can parlay the book into a video game or movie.)

    Business information and market data are, obviously, more like books than music (though, come to think of it, I would be the first person standing inline for tickets if SNL ever takes a rendition of their Energy product to the stage). Not having the ability to control unauthorized distribution, as I see it, can only result in two scenarios (or a hybrid of the two): 1) increasing market data subscription costs for those who are willing to pay in order to mitigate losses due to those who get the data free from a legitimate subscriber, or 2) an increase in the prevalence of low-quality data providers who bake unauthorized distribution into their business models and are able to ask low subscription prices only because their content is cheap to produce.

    I’ve seen evidence of both scenarios above. The result of the first is skyrocketing data costs (not good). The result of the second is, frankly, paying for crap data which is bland, poorly analyzed, and thus nearly unusable. So far, only Bloomberg seems to be successfully containing “content drift,” and only because they manage their distribution channels so diligently.

    It will be interesting, in the coming months and years, to see what measures market data and business information content providers take to manage content drift. After learning of Harpers approach (and assuming for the moment it’s successful), I wonder if Adobe and MSFT might soon enable some sort of view-, time- or machine-related “poof, it’s gone” code for the information providers of the world , who primarily use PDF and XLS for distribution, at least for now.

    Again, a good, thought provoking post. Keep ’em coming!


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