Even before the world was tumbled into chaos by Covid-19, subscription services were on the rise. In 2008, Spotify defied its critics and embarked on a journey that would change a withering music industry forever. Netflix launched its streaming subscription service in 2007, revolutionising the consumption of film and television across the world, with many similar successful services capitalising on the demand for this model since. In the past decade we have come to accept these services as a given. Media is no longer owned, it is consumed. You sign up to a company, tell them what you like, and you are presented with an all-you-can-eat buffet of content. This is the default way we access music, films, and television in 2020. So why not books?
Publishing is a sector which is notoriously shy of revolution. While consumption of all other kinds of media has changed drastically in recent years, the big publishers are hesitant to follow suit. In 2015, Hachette Livre chairman Arnaud Nourry dubbed the book subscription model “flawed” and “absurd”, while their UK chief executive Tim Hely Hutchison said “I don’t believe in subscription. I don’t see how it would do anything other than cannibalise the business we already have … I don’t get it”.
The Spotify style unlimited subscription model would, of course, work only for eBooks and not physical ones. Gordon Wise at Curtis Brown thinks that, even in their digital form, books are fundamentally different from other kinds of media. The all-you-can-eat model is appropriate for things like podcasts and music because they are background noise you can consume while cooking dinner or walking the dog. Books require more commitment and an unlimited subscription may not be worth it for the average casual reader.
A compromise might exist in the form of subscriptions to physical books. Subscription boxes have been getting steadily more popular for a while and this has been catalysed by the Covid-19 lockdown. Stuck in their homes, with more free time and unable to pop to the shops, one in ten Brits signed up to a subscription box service in lockdown. The concept works for just about anything: beer, cheese, beauty products, flowers, and is appealing because experts often know what we want more than we do. Plus, who wouldn’t want a beautiful package with mystery gifts arriving at their door each month? For books, they can be as simple as one random, surprise delivered each month, or a more personalised, curated service; some companies include extras such as tea, chocolate and bookmarks. While many start-ups, indie publishers, and bookshops are running these kinds of services, the big names (with the exception of Puffin) are yet to get in on the action.
Spotify being as ubiquitous as it is, music retail sales actually increased by 11% in 2018. The dominance of Netflix has pushed cinemas to create their own subscription services, and accordingly 2018 saw the highest number of UK cinema attendees since 1970! The notion that making things digital, or even just less traditional, will doom the beloved feel-them-and-smell-them bookshop model is unfounded. It may even give it the boost that it needs.