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:

  • 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.)


  • 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?


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