Although it’s been discussed for years, the subscription e-book model is finally gaining traction in the publishing industry, as three new services offering popular backlist trade books—Oyster, e-Reatah, and Scribd—enter the market. The subscription model is already a business reality in the music and movie industries, with such well-known examples as Pandora, Spotify, and Net-flix. The most successful subscription model in the book business to date has been Safari Books Online, the long-running tech and business e-book service. Under subscription models, consumers pay a regular fee—monthly, weekly, or yearly—and have easy access to a large pool of content (and book discovery and recommendation features), rather than purchasing individual works.

While publishers are willing to give the subscription model a try, there are still unresolved issues relating to how it works within the standard publishing contract, and how authors and publishers will be paid. Scribd has outlined how it will pay publishers: a payment is issued every time a book is “read”—a trigger determined by a complex formula, according to CEO Trip Adler. Oyster and e-Reatah have not yet revealed their approaches to that specific issue. Agents are also worried about how their authors will be compensated and have been making inquiries. And then there is the question of how the services can best be used by publishers. Should they offer access to their frontlists (all the trade book services noted here are focused on backlist titles), and what about marketing or even circulating and testing original, unpublished material?

While its service specializes in business and technology titles, Safari Books Online has been a successful company for years. It offers lots of quality content; the subscription fee is reasonable, from the perspective of consumers as well as those of publishers and authors; and it has an interface that’s easy to use and allows for on- and offline reading.

How the Subscription Offerings Stack Up

Oyster Scribd E-Reatah Safari Books Online
Price $9.95/month $8.99/month Tiered plans starting at $14.99/month Tiered plans starting at $27.99/month
Titles 100,000 Tens of thousands 90,000 32,000
Categories Trade books Trade books Trade books Business and technology books
Terms Unlimited access, 10 books available offline Unlimited access, 10 books available offline Two months per book, depending on plan 10 books per month, three offline, depending on plan
Hype Beautifully designed app, a decent but limited selection of titles, good price point, easy to use and to read books offline Great interface, a large selection of the HarperCollins backlist plus indie house titles, good price point, and easy access on the Web or with devices App can be glitchy, display is clean and easy to use, good selection but high price point, limited number of titles per month Founded in 2001; provides subscription access to latest IT, technology, and business titles; also has videos and classes; offers a variety of plans with different levels of access