E-book subscription services have been the subject of intense interest in North American publishing, especially with the failure of Oyster last month and the growing pains of rival service Scribd over the summer. But, before either of those services existed, there was the German upstart Skoobe. Launched in 2012, Skoobe is going strong. With mobile reading a hot topic at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, Skoobe CEO Constance Landsberg offers an international take on e-book subscriptions.
In 2012, e-book subscriptions for popular books were barely on anyone’s radar. What made you think this model was a good idea to pursue?
Back in 2012, we were definitely pioneers. Our founders were evaluating new business models that could cater to new audiences and expand the overall book market, and, at that time, subscription services had already started to establish themselves in other media markets, like the film or music industry. That was a promising perspective, and today we know that it was an important step forward. On digital devices such as smartphones and tablets, many products and services are competing for the time and attention of users. We wanted to raise the chances for books against apps, social media, games, music, film, and more. Today there are subscription services available in many markets all over the world, and they are gaining more and more relevance for readers and publishers.
Can you tell us a little about your growth?
In Germany, publishers continue to show high interest in our model. We started out with 10,000 e-books and now offer more than 140,000 e-books, not only in German, but also in eight other languages. Our catalogue has been growing extensively, especially over the last year. Since last year’s fair, we have added 80,000 titles from more than 1,600 publishers. And we are very happy with the positive response that we are seeing from customers. The latest Bitkom study shows that more than a quarter of all readers in Germany are reading digitally, and more than 16% are interested in e-book subscription services.
We hear a lot about the differences between the German book market and the market in the U.S., especially in terms of e-books. What can you tell us about German e-book readers based on your experience?
The growth of the German e-book market is still delayed, and is only slowly catching up with the U.S. market. According to the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, the sales percentage of e-books in Germany in the second quarter of 2015 was 5.6% compared to 22% in the U.S. in 2013. In terms of consumption, the German subscription customer is very similar to the general German e-book reader. Romance, thriller, and erotica are on top of their preference list, especially when they are new to Skoobe. However, reading habits change over time, and customers start exploring other genres, like nonfiction books and guidebooks. It happens that Skoobe has proven to be a great tool for discovery.
In the U.S., much attention has been focused on Oyster’s recent failure and Scribd, which had to scale back some of its romance offerings and tweak its model in recent months. I know you don’t talk about the specifics of your model for competitive reasons. But how is the business end working for Skoobe?
Our business model is sound and sustainable. The catalogue is growing, and all partners who have signed with us since the start are still on board. Publishers are growing their title base constantly and are establishing strategies on how best to use the potential of subscription services. Skoobe is proving to be a great opportunity to market titles, especially from the backlist, and new authors alongside bestsellers and new releases. As the overall quality of the catalogue is very high, customers are eager to discover new authors and genres. Some 80% of our customers rate the quality of our book catalogue with “very good” and more than 80% have recommended books that they have read through the service to others.
At the London Book Fair, Scribd officials shared some considerable data about their readers—how much they read, what they read, for example. Are there any interesting data points from Skoobe that you can share?
Definitely. We are seeing that customers are changing the way they read. Three-quarters of the books that users read within Skoobe are books that they say they would not have been likely to purchase. On average, our users spend 50 minutes each day in the app. Approximately 25% buy books that they have discovered and read on Skoobe afterwards as physical books, or even as e-books. These are strong indicators that Skoobe is indeed extending the book market. We also see that readers really explore the Skoobe catalogue before settling on a book. On average they open six books before they start reading. Interestingly, Skoobe also seems to impact the overall general media usage of customers. Users report that they watch less TV and use computers and play video games less.
Critics point to Oyster’s failure and Scribd’s scaling back as evidence that the subscription model can’t work. But are they are missing the point? It seems to me that the problem for Oyster and Scribd was too much demand. In other words, that readers were reading so much sounds like a good problem to have, and suggests that the numbers simply must be better balanced, which of course is part of any business model. What do you say to those who say subscription e-books can’t work?
Subscription services definitely work if they are based on a sustainable business model. A sustainable model is one where all parties involved benefit—customers, authors, publishers, and the services themselves. But we are also convinced that subscription models are a key element to tackle the challenges facing books and reading in the digital media age. There is a great risk that reading books will lose relevance compared to other digital media usage. Young users are constantly spending time reading digitally on smartphones and tablets. However, they are focusing on apps, social media, or text messages. We need to make sure that reading books stays a priority in young users’ minds, especially on the devices that they use most. Plus, when one decides on a media subscription service, there should be the option to choose books over movies, music, and others. We think that the greater risk is that people will read less without a good subscription service, rather than that they will read too much. So readers—and publishers—need attractive services like Skoobe.
What’s next for Skoobe? Are you planning to expand or announce any new partnerships?
We just launched a new book list feature in our app, which will help customers to discover new books more easily, and we are very happy about the initial positive feedback. We’ll definitely continue to work on making access to our content catalogue easier. Furthermore, we are working on launching some exciting new partnerships in the near future—so stay tuned for more news from Skoobe.