Nathan Hull: Ebook subscription data is 'incredibly rich'

Nathan Hull: Ebook subscription data is 'incredibly rich'

Editor's Note: Nathan Hull's move in December from his role as digital director with Penguin Random House to chief business development director with Denmark's Mofibo focused new attention on ebook subscriptions. Praising Mofibo last fall as "easily the best start-up I've encountered in my time at Penguin," he'll be in Berlin late this month to make a presentation at Klopotek AG's Publisher's Forum titled "On How a Flat Rate Subscription Model Can Change the Entire Value Chain" and he'll join a panel I'm chairing called "Publishing Goes Pop." Our profile of Mofibo c.e.o. Morten Strunge is here. And today, Hull looks at the service's "layer upon layer of rich, contextual data that reveals an incredible amount about readers' behaviour" — and at sharing that data with publishers, who "have the same aims" as subscriptions. — Porter Anderson 


As publishers navigate an increasingly digital world, where every engagement between a reader and a book can conceivably be mediated through technological touch points (from purchase to reading, recommendation to author interaction) there’s a growing focus on and access to ‘data.’  The importance of this is gathering pace like a giant (and sometimes impenetrable) snowball.

Despite constant references to metrics, behavioural modelling, audience segmentation and other fashionable buzzwords, is the industry really taking full advantage of these new insights?

You could argue that rigorous data analysis is potentially as valuable to a publisher’s profits as many of the more traditional functions of the business (it’s certainly a cornerstone of Amazon’s model). Yet, ironically, how hard are digital retailers pushed in renegotiations for truly useful data? Sure, some are more generous sharing information than others, but I’d bet my bottom kroner that the really detailed data requests in contract talks are, more often than not, conceded when push comes to shove.

In truth, the information shared by the more collaborative retailers relates solely to an untethered print or a la carte sale. Armed only with this, the publisher is forced — with each new title — to repeatedly spend time, effort and money re-engaging book buyers rather than developing a holistic, long-term approach. It’s a frustrating, inefficient cycle that serves the publisher poorly. Interestingly, despite the noisy debates about subscription services, there has been little conversation about the extraordinary potential of the data it can provide. Think about it.

My company, Mofibo, is a digital book service that operates almost entirely around the performance behaviours of its users. Our data is gathered from a continuously evolving reading environment where habits are formed. Not just purchase habits — but also frequency of reading, locations for reading, devices on which people read and much more. There’s layer upon layer of rich, contextual data that reveals an incredible amount about readers' behaviour. Just take the 1.2 million pages of books read every day on Mofibo, throw in the 600,000 minutes of audiobooks listened to daily and imagine the possibilities of that combined scale.

Remember, in this world of smart phones and tablets, the consumer’s choice of the activity is vast. Games, TV, music, film, social networks and then reading. And arguably reading is the most time-consuming if these activities. If Mofibo's (and hopefully the publisher’s) aim is to increase time spent reading on devices, then the data generated is crucial. Moreover, the time-spent also means the data is incredibly rich.

Mofibo seeks to truly understand the reader and then inspire them. In fact, our whole existence is based on giving our users the right book at the right time. We aim to identify emotional considerations so our users can find books based on tonal and mood search and recommendation, not just on metadata and keyword searches. In short, we understand the relationship between books and our readers deeply — and this is exactly the data we share with publishers. 

And the reason we do?  

Ultimately, both Mofibo and the publishers have the same aims: connecting readers to books that genuinely excite them; promoting talented writers; growing the reading market, and doing all this on a strong commercial foundation.

And really, these are just the first steps on a long journey. When we truly understand reader habits, there are some fascinating, imaginative questions we can begin to ask ourselves about the future of storytelling. For example, what innovative new shapes could narratives take when authors know certain audiences read every day for exactly 16 minutes on their commute?

The creative potential of all this data is worth an article alone.

Publishers need to push for more information, learn to harness it, interpret it and act upon it. It can be one of the most powerful, valuable and creative tools in your arsenal.