Nathan Hull: A misinformed maelstrom

Nathan Hull: A misinformed maelstrom

"Digital reading as a genuine competitor to TV, film, gaming and music" will sound good to just about anyone in publishing. And Mofibo chief business development officer Nathan Hull tells us that's exactly the promise in which ebook subscription services are couched. When we asked Hull, a frequent contributor to The FutureBook, to comment on the recent noise around subscriptions (Scribd's "adjustment" to its romance content, Amazon's Kindle Unlimited per-page payout for KDP Select authors, etc.), he came back to us worried that these noisy events on the horizon of subscriptions' evolution in one part of the world require all such services "to navigate unnecessarily complicated waters constantly justifying their own positions." -- Porter Anderson

The fall-out and excitement around the should-they / shouldn’t-theys of Oyster adding a la carte ebook purchase, Scribd removing content, or Kindle Unlimited showing their hand in pay-per-page calculations is muddying the waters of new business in publishing and, in my view, is falling short of the point.

The point isn’t to wrestle the rights and wrongs of these models and their approaches.

The point everyone’s missing is that this commotion is distracting the publishing world from allowing individual markets to make their own balanced decisions that are appropriate for their market. Instead, we have a negative, often misinformed maelstrom that threatens to block the road to a bright future for our industry that is very possible in Europe and, in some cases, already happening.

This bright future sees digital reading as a genuine competitor to TV, film, gaming and music in the battle for a consumer’s attention. It sees a genuine and significant additional revenue stream to publishers and authors. This bright future sees reader numbers grow and it moves with the times. 

While the publishing world’s US subscription players (Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle Unlimited) remain everyone’s favourite punching bags — and as Spotify vs. Apple Music vs. Tidal splinters the user experience in the music world — ebook subscription services across Europe such as Mofibo (Scandinavia), Nubico (Spain), Skoobe (Germany) have to navigate unnecessarily complicated waters, constantly justifying their own positions and dodging the looming tar brush that “subscriptions are bad news” — all because of the actions of others.

This “bad news” moniker should be kept cleanly on one side of the Atlantic and the Europeans should be freed to make autonomous and appropriate decisions for their own markets. If the perception is that US companies haven’t yet generated enough new revenue to be sustainable, then let that sit where it started and let the US publishers deal with it in a way that’s appropriate for their market.

In Europe, let’s be clear, Oyster, Scribd, Kindle Unlimited largely do not currently operate locally with a local mentality. They only remotely scrape up whatever rights they can. New business models need to reflect any individual market’s demands and the public’s tolerance levels for, and expectation of, access consumption models.

Country by country, even within the comparatively small continent of Europe, in this digital age people consume content differently and pay differently. Yet the publishing industry’s modelling and rules are largely based on a paper and print mentality, and largely dictated out of the US, which holds the puppeteer's strings.

The challenge here isn’t limited to helping the European markets. That’s just the tangible spear of my argument. Apply the rants more liberally when thinking about new markets, all glaring opportunities if done correctly. Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East all need an approach that’s appropriate to their consumers, and digital is the simplest way to apply this.

The fallout of the apparent frailties of the US subscription models also subsequently drip-feeds into the psyche of the agent and author communities, too. And without some delicate counter-balancing of the scales, their decisions will, understandably, only be informed by the one-way news they’re receiving from the US where the subscription picture is seemingly bleak or, at best, confusing. I read the same as everyone else and that’s the view I walk away with.

For new business models in the UK, Europe and beyond to thrive and intelligently co-exist alongside the print industry, a few things need to happen in my view.

Publishers need to arm themselves with an open-mind and more intelligent set of questions and research, and not just react to news from the US. Publishers need the freedom to develop and experiment on their own doorsteps. Publishers then need to use this local knowledge to challenge any lack of autonomy their internal structure grants them. I acknowledge this is easier said than done, but the penetration of English-language in Northern Europe is so strong, what better circumstance to learn?

Equally, and perhaps most importantly, I’d encourage agents and authors to do the same. One size does not fit all. If informed, intelligent decisions are made, agents and authors will find there are sizeable new income streams in Europe, avenues to new readers and companies that are truly adapting to taking reading into the digital age. If these informed, not enforced, decisions are made, then that bright road once again becomes accessible.

Main image - Pixabay: Skitterphoto

Image of Nathan Hull: Adam Janisch, Klopotek Publishers' Forum