Indie Publishers Look to Subscriptions for Sales Boost


However the future of book publishing shakes out, independent companies are harder pressed than ever to figure out how to survive, much less thrive. Some publishers feel the answer is to try a more direct approach, complimenting the usual bookseller and retailer-oriented sales channels with a subscription model that reaches readers directly.

Unbridled Books, an Arizona-based independent publishing house specializing in literary fiction, announced its subscription program yesterday for some upcoming titles, chosen for early interest and enthusiasm. An annual subscription of $100 buys six titles by emerging writers such as Elise Blackwell and Taroko George, or three books for $60, all of which will ship before publication. Unbridled is also offering subscribers a 25% discount on backlist titles.

"By going the subscription route, we're offering readers a special service, something unique," says Unbridled's marketing director, Caitlin Hamilton Summie. "Fiction fans will just love this, especially -- this chance to get early editions. It creates a greater bond with our readers, and we further build our conversation with them."

Unbridled is only the latest small independent publisher to try a subscription model. Open Letter Press, a house based in Rochester, N.Y., that specializes in translated works, offers a season-based subscription: Five titles sell for $60, and 10 current and forthcoming books for $100. Featherproof Books last year launched a subscription-based imprint, Paper Egg Books, with an objective to print only as many books as ordered by its $20-a-year subscribers. And Soft Skull Press, based in Brooklyn, generated approximatedly $2,000 in revenue in 2006 and 2007 for a subscription service. The program was discontinued after independent house Counterpoint bought Soft Skull.

Milwaukee-based suspense and dark-fiction publisher Tyrus Books has been offering a more comprehensive subscription program since its inception last summer, carried over from a project operated by founders Benjamin LeRoy and Alison Janssen at their prior venture, Bleak House Books. For $339, Tyrus customers get autographed hardcover first editions of the first 13 books on their list, published between last September and next August. For $219, customers can get the same books in trade paperback editions. Though it's too early to tell how the program is working at Tyrus, the model worked well at Bleak House and could add healthy revenues to the small publisher.

For independent bookstores, the subscription model is nothing new. Collectors' clubs at stores like Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan or Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., and R.J. Julia & Company's Just the Right Book program, run the gamut: personalized bookseller-selected book-of-the-month subscriptions, regular mailings, and one-time libraries for kids of varying ages. For indies, customers paying up-front fees for curated book selection is often a lifeline.

Will a direct-from-the-publisher subscription model cannibalize indie book sales or create a symbiotic relationship between both stripes of independents? Summie believes subscriptions benefit booksellers while giving Unbridled a leg up in the overall marketplace. "The subscription is something that creates a conversation about our books, encourages early reads and therefore word of mouth, and I think that benefits both market segments," she says. "Ultimately, I think this subscription will drive sales to bookstores."

UPDATE: Denise Oswald, current publisher of Soft Skull, has alerted DailyFinance that the imprint's subscription service was not discontinued, and that "We''re working on 2010 themes now."