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The subscription model is often dismissed as antiquated and irrelevant, with licensing elevated as a better solution — cheaper, more efficient, and more suitable to a networked world, its proponents offer.
Yet, as a colleague once noted to me, the subscription model is peerless. Not only does it allow individuals to pay for things they value, it allows individuals to come and go as they please. It’s granular, in the modern parlance, and often more affordable than a license or pay-as-you-go.
From a publisher’s perspective, the subscription model has many virtues, including a predictable cash flow, manageable conversion and renewal trends, and rational pricing.
While subscriptions may be out of vogue in STM online publishing, they are prevalent in many other aspects of digital life. From cable television to anti-virus software to Netflix to cellular phones to online services to Kindle content, modern humans subscribe, pay monthly, and renew very happily for things they value.
So, what’s different about today’s publishing subscriptions? The finished goods or “toys” tied to them.
In the print era, the print journal was the finished good we produced — high-quality, impossible for the consumer to replicate (ink and paper warehousing, printing equipment, etc.). Tying information to the aesthetics of a precious finished good was at the heart of print subscriptions. It created “lock in,” as well, making the user dependent on the finished good in order to receive the information. The device and the content were inseparable.
In the online era, our information has become divorced from any finished good associated with its publisher. We’re just more online flotsam.
But other subscriptions give you toys. Your cable company gives you a cool cable box, a remote, and a DVR. Your cell phone provider lures you in with a nifty phone. Your anti-virus software goes with your expensive computer. The Kindle is a connected reading device, a finished good allowing even free blogs to charge for their content, just for the convenience of getting on that device. Even Netflix gives you a DVD and a highly designed return envelope, which many subscribers probably can now open, reconfigure, and reuse relying only on muscle memory.
Will the subscription model play a role in the future of STM publishing? It could, if we could make the right toy — something that advances research while also providing a modicum of cool. Creating this new “lock in” with a physical device might be impossible, but others are succeeding using this model for modern subscriptions.