What did we learn?
We learnt that experimenting is great fun, a lot of work, more time consuming than we’d imagined, and that people are generous and supportive (there’s always an exception).
We used Pressbooks™ because it is a simple web-based book production system for presenting long-form narrative online, has a commenting system, has the facility to sign up subscribers, and produces valid epubs. These points were key. Although Pressbooks isn’t currently set up for the subscription model I wanted, the basic infrastructure gave me sufficient leeway to create an ecommerce model that would work for us. Hugh McGuire was, as always, at the ready to help out with tech issues to do with activating subscribers (an area outside of our direct control, and handled by Pressbooks).
The other important part was that because this was our own publishing venture, I was free to experiment. The only guarantees we needed in order to proceed were that we could deliver what we promised and that payments were secure. A few subscribers had hiccups related to receiving activation emails for the subscriber site, and some struggled with downloading the final zipped ebook files, but in general things worked pretty seamlessly, with the ecommerce part working perfectly. I’ve become friends with quite a few subscribers in the process too.
The other key was to have an author who not only understands the online world, but for whom writing online to an actively participating audience is the norm. We were thus very fortunate to have Laura Bontrager writing for us. She is a very good writer, widely read, an extremely warm-hearted person, very respectful towards all the subscribers, and much loved by her fans.
Almost half of the subscribers donated more than the $5 required to receive an ebook in the end, many of those donated double than that, and only a handful of people donated less than $2. Most subscribers seemed to like the idea of supporting a writer’s work and efforts, and really did embrace the idea of being a patron of the arts. Let me also make clear that for this particular project, Laura is earning the lion’s share. We will revisit the contract for Laura’s next book, but our intention is always to treat our partnership with our authors as exactly that: a collaborative effort with the royalty reflecting that.
It was great having access to Google Analytics for the various sites (including our own website) and that gave us a good indication of interest. Clearly there was a spike on the first day, and until Google blocked our bulk emails, we got a similar spike every day when we emailed the update regarding the latest chapter. (We will be using something like MailChimp for bulk emails next time.) We got similar traction with our daily reminder tweet. (I’m not sure how our usual followers felt about these tweets as they are used to getting tweets from us about digital publishing.)
We will be meeting with Hugh to discuss everything in more detail and to see how we can work together to ensure a seamless subscription service, particularly regarding activation of subscribers. We’ll also simplify things for ourselves in terms of maintaining the Pressbooks sites, and we’ll probably continue with the same ecommerce system, which worked well.
While we assume that most readers buying the files from our website (which provides Laura and us with greater revenue) will have the technical nous to install the relevant ereading apps etc, we may need to provide some generic instructions for subscribers about downloading files to the different platforms, how to install Kindle and iBook apps, ADE, etc.
We’ll also look at ways we can engage with our readers even more.
It has been a great couple of months, we’ve had a ball, and I can’t thank Laura, the subscribers, all our readers, and Hugh, enough. We’ll keep the subscriber site open for a while to new readers. Existing subscribers will continue to have access to it for the foreseeable future.