Solidus & Subscriptions: Adventures of a Publisher Trying to Disrupt Itself

Rob Johnson
VP of Digital at Deseret Book Company

A Brief Overview of Deseret Book Company

Deseret Book Company is comprised of multiple companies, retailers, brands and imprints with currently 68 stores nationwide.

Highly focused on vertical strategy, owning the entire value chain for most of its product.

manufacturing → sales → fulfillment

Businesses include:

  • 3 different Retail store entities
    • Deseret Book
    • Seagull Book
    • Sweet Salt Clothing
  • Several publishing imprints
  • Record label
  • Movie distribution company
  • Print Magazine
  • Events business

Deseret Book Timeline

  • 2014: replaced a custom legacy ecommerce solution with Spree and integrated digital products (merged stores)
  • 2015: relaunched our iOS and Android eBook apps and added audiobooks
  • 2016: went from Spree to Solidus
  • 2017: launched our first subscription, Bookshelf PLUS+

The Situation

We had two ecommerce stores with a different product page for each variant:

  1. Our main store for physical product only
  2. A secondary digital-only store

Preparing for disruption

We changed our ecommerce platform in the following ways:

  1. Customer Experience: Single product page for all format options
  2. Search: No more multiple product results showing for all product variants
  3. SEO: All format links point to the same product page - organic traffic jumped 36%

Did everyone agree with this?

Not quite

  • Topline lower for digital
  • Margin($) are lower for digital (per item)

"Why promote a cheaper format option on the product page?"

Disruption is painful and often hurts short-term growth objectives.

This is why businesses get disrupted.

You can apply this model to any industry

Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail

Integrating digital with physical was a stepping stone for increased digital sales and digital subscription

We launched Bookshelf PLUS+

Shout out

We use Braintree's Subscription / Recurring Billing Features

Show me the data!

(39%) cannibalisation of digital a la carte spend

97% overall growth in annual digital revenue since launch

How has this impacted overall sales including physical sales?

Subscriptions have been a net positive

*Numbers as of August 2020

Things we've learned

#1. Tightly couple your subscription offering to the traditional business

This is the biggest challenge, but the most rewarding.

  • One-click Checkout addons
  • Simplify the sign-up process
  • Tokenize cards
  • Remove the complexity of pro-rating fee's and serviceable dates

#2. Original product is key

We've found that some customers only subscribe for specific content. Find out what the demand is and create unique content around the job to be done. Giving your content to other distributors will weaken your subscription offering.

This is critical.

#3. Simplify your upgrade path as much as possible

When asking customers if they would prefer to add an entirely new subscription plan versus increasing their current subscription plan, we saw a 44% increase in interest in simply upgrading the current subscription

We've seen an 11% increase in subscribers upgrading to Annual since after the first year we launched

#4. Your annual subscribers will be your most valuable customers

Increasing your annual subscriber share is worth the effort. Seeing growth here is a strong sign of higher retention and engagement.

Monthly Annual
56% 44%

#5. Your old product is still very valuable

The traditional book cycle has a first "17-weeks" lifecycle where the majority of sales occur in the first 17 weeks. Subscriptions changes this significantly.

Consumption of audiobooks and eBooks has a very long and thick tail.

Focusing on "now available" messaging, related products and merchandising space to aid discovery is very important.

We've not implemented a recommendation system yet, but know that would be very valuable also.

#6. What brings people to subscribe is not what keeps them there

Our subscriber consumption data shows that customers are often initially drawn to subscribe for certain desired content. But what keeps them as subscribers is content that they wouldn't have initially subscribed for.

#7. Invest in acquisition and retargeting to the platform, not the product

Define the amount you're willing to spend on acquisition. A general approach for the most aggresive plans is to put back into marketing all the revenue earned for the first 1-2 years.

Ensure that the positioning of your subscription brand is above the product it contains. Each message will provide greater awareness and perceived value of the subscription instead of the ephemeral product.

#8. Empower the customer

Subscriptions are everywhere. Don't be the one to require a notorized and posted letter to cancel.

The worse your cancelation experience is, the less likely your customers will be to sign up again.

Start/Stop subscription behavior will become the norm.


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Rob Johnson
VP of Digital at Deseret Book Company