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From the Tech Desk
Children's eBook subscription service leaves comparable business models in the dust
At the beginning of this year, From the Tech Desk made a few predictions about what 2016 would bring for the technology side of publishing. One of those predictions was that eBook subscription services would have a make or break year. Not too long ago, it looked like services such as Scribd, Oyster, and Entitle would bring about a new access-over-ownership model for readers everywhere. After all, Spotify had accomplished that feat for music, and with eBooks becoming commonplace, it stood to reason that book publishing would follow a similar path. But Oyster and Entitle both ended up sputtering to premature conclusions, and while Scribd is still standing, it's hardly setting the world on fire in terms of subscription numbers or overall influence.
Still, the idea of eBook subscription services becoming successful businesses is not dead. On the contrary, at least one service is finding massive success with the subscription model—and leaving all of its competitors in the dust as a result. That company, the children's eBook subscription service Epic (sometimes stylized as "Epic!"), was the subject of a recent profile piece in Publisher's Weekly.
From the sound of the PW article, things could hardly be going better for Epic. According to the profile, the Redwood City, California-based company has only been in business for about two and a half years now, since January 2014. In that time, though, Epic has managed to wrangle up a library of more than 15,000 children's eBook titles, including books from publishers like HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Disney. Kevin Donahue, the company's co-founder, even told Publisher's Weekly that Epic enjoyed 400% revenue growth in 2015 and expects to see similar growth in 2016.
The first question is why Epic has found success where other subscription models either failed entirely or struggled to take flight. After all, while 15,000 titles is nothing to shake a stick at, it's not exactly an epic number either. Scribd, for instance, says that their eBook library offers "hundreds of thousands [of titles] to choose from." Back in 2014, when Oyster was being heralded as the "Netflix of eBooks" by the Los Angeles Times, that service had over 500,000 books. In comparison, Epic's count of 15,000 books seems measly.
Then again, Epic might benefit from a more niche-based approach. Scribd and Oyster are/were services built to appeal to all readers. Epic is just focusing on children's titles, which might be key to the service's success. Indeed, some of the most notable characteristics of Epic's rise to prominence are benefits of its focus on the children's market. A major segment of the PW article focused on how teachers and librarians are using Epic in schools. The service is free for educators, which means that the company isn't exactly seeing revenues from all of those reads. However, there's no doubt that getting placement in schools is terrific exposure for Epic, and may well be part of the reason that more parents are finding the service and buying memberships for their kids. (The fact that the price tag for Epic is just $4.99 per month and includes four reader profiles per account doesn't hurt either.)
Epic also incorporates a number of features specifically designed to get kids reading more and keep them engaged as they go. The service comes with a built-in reading log, perfect for tracking kids' progress as they work toward reading goals for school or summer reading programs. The service also tracks kids as they read and awards badges to keep kids motivated and excited about reading. And when a child finishes a book, Epic has an algorithm that can deliver new book recommendations "based on your child's reading level and interests."
The second big question is whether or not other subscription-based eBook services can take a leaf out of Epic's book and use it to find success. Donahue agrees that being a service focused on serving children has helped Epic. In the PW article, he noted that adults are usually looking for books with a lot of buzz—which usually means books by big-name authors or books that are being made into films or TV shows. Typically, those books end up coming from the Big Five, and the major publishers have notoriously made things difficult for eBook subscription services—at least so far. While kids love iconic characters from franchises like Sesame Street, Peanuts, and just about anything Disney, Donahue said that they "aren't as brand-focused as you think." As a result, it might be easier to get kids to read books about unfamiliar characters by unknown authors. Because of this fact, Epic has been able to establish very beneficial relationships with independent publishers.
Of course, other eBook subscription services might still be able to learn a thing or two from Epic. The service's niche-based focus—instead of trying to serve every reader under the sun—has allowed it to offer better recommendations and curated content. Subscription services focused on specific genres or types of books might work better than the more grab-bag style setup. As for Epic's reader engagement features, giving readers trophies or badges for certain accomplishments might seem like a very kid-focused thing, but it's not difficult to see a variation of that system paying attention to adults. Just looked at Untappd, a mobile app that lets users track the beers they drink and earn badges based on various criteria. A quirky rewards system might be just the thing that most eBook subscription services are missing.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.