24symbols to launch ebook subscription service in June

A Spanish company named Bestsharer has started beta testing 24symbols, a new subscription-based ebook service, in preparation for a public launch this June. Like the music service Spotify, it will charge customers a flat monthly fee for all-you-can-read access to a hosted ebook catalog. Also like Spotify, it won’t be available in the U.S. at launch, grr.

This new cloud-based approach lets 24symbols simultaneously try out several interesting concepts that bloggers and publishers have been talking about for a while:

  • a subscription-based ebook service (5-10€ per month)
  • an ad-based ebook service;
  • a DRM-free cloud model (similar to what Readings is doing in Australia); and
  • granular tracking of readers’ interactions with specific titles.

The first three points are the ones that I think everyone will talk a lot about, because they describe a bookseller model that’s far different from anything currently being practiced. But I think the fourth concept — tracking reader behavior per title — could generate some really interesting data for publishers and booksellers.

Subscriptions and ads

When Readings launched its cloud-based ebook service at the start of 2011, I balked at the premium-level pricing for ebooks where you can’t download your own digital copy. It’s bad enough that retailers have muddled the concepts of buying and licensing when it comes to ebooks, but telling me I was “buying” something I couldn’t even back-up to my private library was a step too far.

On the other hand, paying a monthly subscription for access to a library seems both familiar — think Netflix — and more fair to the consumer. It’s already clear I don’t “own” any ebooks I license through places like Amazon and Kobo, so why not just let me pay a fee to browse a bigger library than I could ever privately assemble or manage?

When it comes to ads and ebooks, I know that plenty of readers have declared the entire concept verboten. But I suspect there’s a silent majority of readers who won’t care, so long as the ads aren’t too intrusive, and they consequently make the ebook free to access.

Who knows if it will work? The ad-based revenue model may be too weak to bother with, or it may turn into something like Amazon’s Top 100 free ebooks list, where publishers offer the first book in a series but keep the rest at a premium level. But at least someone’s giving it a shot.

For now, I’m withholding any criticism. I haven’t seen how the ads are implemented, and there’s no mention of them in this quick description of 24symbols’ web interface by Timo Boezeman at FutureBook, who’s seen the private beta. (He says platform-specific apps will also be released when the service goes public.)

When you login, the “homepage” features new book releases. You can switch to other sections, like Recommendations (Most read, Recommendations for you, Books you looked at), Friends (on Facebook), Favourites (books you starred) and a folder view (like Spotify) where you can list the books you want to read/are reading at this moment. Searching for a title is also possible, of course.

When you click on the cover of a book, you’ll see the title information on the right, explaining the details, synopsis, index, average user rating and possibilities to share this title on Twitter of Facebook. What works really well is that the text is text (and not a simple refined PDF file) and is adjustable in size. You can flip pages by using your keyboard, the next page arrow on the screen or by just scrolling down. You can use the index to quickly change chapters and bookmark (just as with your ereader).

Page views as quality control! Page views as reader data!

What I think is coolest about this model is how it uses page views to split up revenue. The company says it will create a standard page measurement as a specific number of words, and apply that to all texts equally when splitting up ad and subscription revenue.

On a basic level, this is a no-brainer; it’s how websites and blogs frequently distribute revenue, since it provides a clear measurement of the earning potential of content. It also, unfortunately, leads to gross behavior like link baiting, where blogs and sites post top 10 lists or write incendiary headlines. (It’s why there’s a glut of Apple coverage every time Steve Jobs hiccups.)

But it might work better for books (setting aside poetry and drama). One of the current worries is that spammers and content farms are starting to game ebook stores with low-quality material, which can be profitable because of how the current system works: all you have to do is make sure your spam content is the best match for specific search terms, and that the description is compelling enough, and you’ve made a sale and can keep the profits.

In a page-view model, that same spammer is only going to earn an amount equivalent to how long the reader sticks with his ebook after opening it. In theory at least, this should reward quality content and penalize fluff. It also provides an incentive for 24symbols to promote quality work over SEO-optmized junk, which is something Amazon and Barnes & Noble have no reason to care about right now since they make the same money off of either sale.

The other cool thing about tracking and sharing page views is it will give publishers some insight into how readers actually interact with their books. Say you have a series that most readers seem to abandon in the fourth title. You can look at where in the text the majority of readers stop reading, and use that information to figure out the problem.

For now, it looks like 24symbols is only sharing page views with publishers and authors, and not data like reading duration or shared notes, but it’s a good start at collecting and sharing reader analytics. The more I think about it, the more I suspect Amazon internally generates and studies the same information from its Kindle customers; it would be the sort of data I’d certainly want to see before deciding whether to bring an author into the AmazonEncore program, for example.

Where’s the money?

I’ve only taken a quick look at 24symbols’ author and publisher agreements, so there may be unfavorable terms in there that I didn’t pick up on, but here’s what I could glean:

  • Pays 70% of revenue to publisher/author.
  • Bestsharer claims no exclusive rights to the work.
  • You can withdraw titles at any time, but have to give 6 months’ notice.
  • You can decide whether to include your works in the ad-supported area, or limit them to the ad-free subscription area.
  • You can hand over an undigitized manuscript (from your backlist, for example) and if Bestsharer decides to include it in its catalog, it will digitize the work for free. If you want to use that file outside of 24symbols, you’ll have to compensate them for the conversion.

Since 24symbols’ revenue model includes ad sales and subscriptions, there are two ways to earn money on a book. With ad sales, each book earns a pro-rated amount of total “common” ad revenue based on page views; if a specific book has an ad campaign that’s exclusive to it, then it keeps all the revenue. With subscriptions, books earn a pro-rated amount based on page views. In every event, the amount actually paid to the author or publisher is 70% of the revenue, while 24symbols keeps the rest.

I’m eager to see how this works when the service goes live this summer, particularly with respect to which publishers participate and how many books they place in the ad-supported area. Sadly, as I mentioned at the top, I won’t be able to test it from the U.S. But here’s hoping the service proves valuable to readers, 24symbols, and publishers/authors. I’d be happy to pay $10/month for the ebook version of Netflix.

“Spotify for Books” [FutureBook]

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