How to Sell Low-Cost Subscriptions to Short Stories

Jane Knows

I received the following question from Gail McConnon:

Re: Question on Serializing a Short Story Collection through a Paid Subscription

I know. That subject header is enough to make the head spin. Just stay with me for a minute, though. There’s something I’d like to do, but haven’t a clue where to start. I’m really hoping you have an idea.

I’ve written a book that is a collection of 50 short stories. My current plan is to sell it as an ebook. Before that, though, I’d like to make the individual stories available for sale—at about $.25 each—by subscription. Subscribers could start and stop at any time. As long as they are subscribed, however, a new story will be delivered to their e-reader or phone at the click of a button. At $.25, people feel almost as if they are getting something for free—which is great. On the other hand, I haven’t been able to figure out how to charge only $.25 using any recognized system like Amazon without being permanently impoverished by their charges. A regular membership site might be the best bet, thought the geekification quotient involved in setting such a thing up terrifies me.

(I’ve also thought of charging $1 for 4 stories, or $2.50 for 10. Some magical system would simply keep track of the money in their account, and let them know when then need to re-up.)

Anyway, does this sound possible to you? And, if so, where to begin? (If your first thought is that I should find a 13 year old to create an app for me … I’ve already been there. Do you know how expensive smart 13 year olds are?!)

Thank you for any suggestions you can offer.

This presented quite a stumper, and I didn’t end up proposing the solution that Gail is now experimenting with, but here’s a break down of possibilities (along with Gail’s method). If you have suggestions of how this can be done—or strategies to pursue—I hope you’ll leave your know-how in the comments.

Possible solutions, but with a caveat

I’m not convinced subscription is the way to go, especially if readers are not already familiar with your work and trust you to deliver a must-read story every time. Also, I don’t think the price point is the biggest motivator for readers, at least not in this scenario. Time and energy are big players as well. Readers have to be very fond of you to be constantly pinged with new stuff to read, and to be reminded they’re getting charged.

(That’s one of the biggest things I learned when running an online subscription service at Writer’s Digest: Every time you remind someone they’re paying for your content, you’ll get drop off!)

Side note: There was a big debate in the journalism/content community about whether micropayment systems would work to “save” newspapers and other subscription-driven publications. Long story short: It does not seem that micropayments are the future, at least for journalism. (But here’s a recent article discussing it anyway.)

If you really want to give the subscription idea a shot, though:

  • Letter.ly. This is a e-newsletter service that allows you to easily charge people to subscribe. That would eliminate any chance of people being unable to read it based on proprietary format or device. One challenge here that Gail points out: Each new subscription would start with wherever she’s at in the stories, rather than with the first story.
  • Ning. You could create a fee-based membership site using Ning without having to know anything about site building or programming. However, this option will cost you money—and costs might outweigh your subscription revenue unless you have hundreds of people ready to pay and keep paying.
  • E-Junkie. This is an eCommerce tool you can use with your own site to sell digital downloads. It has a lot of features, but it’s not something that I’ve used, so I don’t know the ins and outs of how it might work with subscription content. (Perhaps someone could offer advice in the comments if familiar with E-Junkie.)

Alternatives

  • Price the stories at 99 cents each on Amazon (or Scribd, Smashwords, etc), and use them primarily as marketing and promotion tools for the entire collection. Forget the subscription idea.
  • Anything that’s app-based means you’d exclude readers who do not have a smartphone/iPhone or tablet/iPad. As much news and attention as apps get, it’s a small percentage of avid readers who actually have these devices. Then it’s even a smaller percentage who are likely to discover and download the app … and then there all kinds of rules about subscriptions sold inside/outside apps, and you don’t want to go there. Not when you’re charging 25 cents.

What Gail is trying

I received this follow-up from Gail after she sent the question:

I think I may have found the answer. This morning, I came across a write-up on a WordPress membership site plugin called the Magic Members Plugin. It says one can set up a free membership that allows for pay per post access. Granted, this software is designed specifically to get payment for blog posts. However, if stories or story links are posted on a “private” blog, it might just work. And, this service is integrated with MailChimp (which I use) for e-mail delivery. The question becomes, “How low can a price be set to make this a win/win?” Oh, one more thing: It’s not a free plugin. Still, I think it may be worth considering.

So now I’ll open this situation up for discussion. What do you think the right solution is? Have you tried paid subscription access for any of your content?

 

Posted in Digital Media, E-Books and tagged , , , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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21 Comments on "How to Sell Low-Cost Subscriptions to Short Stories"

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Thomas Wigington

If I recall correctly, Stephen King experimented with selling one of his books a chapter at a time online. He learned NOT to do that again. If Stephen King could not make a subscription work, how would a new author do so?
I believe back in the days of Dickens novels appeared as newspaper serials before being bound and sold as books, but does anybody do that today? Maybe submitting some stories to appropriate literary magazines and then including them in a collection would accomplish what she wants.

Florence Fois

Interesting concept … however. It smacks me as a mistake to try to sell chapters as subscriptions. The “serial” concept is as old as Charles Dickens, but we are not living in Victorian England. Some of the best newspapers and mag are struggling and folding their tents.

Your suggestion is a better way … As a kindle user I would not object to at least .99 BUT as I writer I think Gail is making a terrible mistake offering herself for .25.  Not only selling herself short, she is also trying to succeed with a failed system.

Guinevere
Great questions. There are a couple people I follow who are using Letter.ly successfully to earn a living from writing, and who are teaching other writers how to do that: http://evbogue.com http://www.gwenbell.com Letter.ly’s “inability” to allow people to get back issues of content also works as a teaser for readers who are invested. I’ve experienced this as a reader of a couple of Letter.ly letters. One commenter here mentioned Dickens’s ability to serialize content. For the past few months I’ve thought that, today, the Internet gives everyone the ability to have their own “Household Words.” The piece you linked to,… Read more »
Robin Mizell

I don’t have a recommendation, but Gail might want to examine PayPal’s “merchant solution for digital goods.” Lots of buyers are comfortable with PayPal, though its fees seem a bit high.

DailyLit serializes fiction delivered via email or RSS. The installments are free for readers. I believe the rights licenses are sponsored. Advertising sponsorship is an alternative approach.

DiscoverLit
I’m actually starting a company called DiscoverLit that provides a platform for the exact method of sale and distribution for which Gail is searching.   Stephen King does consider his attempt with The Plant a success.  Readership dropped off, but he didn’t continue the experiment consistently for a period of time long enough to draw hard conclusions regarding the public’s desire for serialized content.  His main conclusions centered on the success of self-publishing online.   Should she sell her content for $0.25?  I don’t think an answer based on solid data exists because it hasn’t be tested publicly to any… Read more »
David Mark Brown
This is intriguing. I like the idea of serialization, but not as a subscription. With new devices for reading I feel like serialization is due for a comeback in nice bite-size chunks. But the whole Copyblogger “Content Marketing” concept (which I usually adhere to) suggests that by providing the shorts for free on a regular scheduled basis could lead to increased sales of the collection and possibly novels, or other monotized items. So I feel like the best solution would still be to provide at least a few of the shorts for free and then sell the rest as a… Read more »
Pat Daly

Bruce Holland Rogers (www.shortshortshort.com) has had a $10 annual subscription to his short stories for many years.  He sends out two stories per month.  His methods don’t seem to be very sophisticated but they seem to work for him (and for the subcriber).  I think he started publishing his stories for free and was persuaded by his followers to charge a subscription fee through PayPal.

Dan Schmidt

Another serializer, Alexander McCall Smith, wrote for “The Scotsman” what later became “44 Scotland Street” (and subsequent volumes).
Installments can generate interest and feedback–both of which are of value (and maybe worth more than .25/ piece). They also can form a book (as mentioned) that those caught by the story can buy to read again (or catch missed installments) or recommend.
I think Orson Scott Card did something similar by putting portions of his series on his website for readers to review (and enjoy). In one of his books, he mentions the value of this crowd-sourcing endeavor.

Brad Swift
I really enjoyed your post and the comments as well. I would say at this point the best approach is to engage new readers with free or inexpensive (99 cent) short stories to build a readership then following up with your longer work.  I believe Kindle sends out follow up notices to those who have downloaded an author’s work whenever something new comes out from that author.  If the short stories are good, then I think upgrading to a longer work would be a easy next step.   Also, wondering how you have Twitter Reactions show up on your blog… Read more »
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