Subscription models - Nathan Hull

Opinion - Publishing Friday, 28th September 2018

The second in a two-part preview of the Frankfurt Rights Meeting, where subscription models come under scrutiny. Today, Nathan Hull

Describe how Bookchoice works.
Bookchoice is a digital bookclub in your pocket - a curated service offering eight hand-picked ebooks and audiobooks per month at a super affordable price point. Imagine a Netflix for books where the conundrum of choice is removed. We do that part for you. The ebooks and audiobooks are available as download-to-own, in which case they're yours forever, or via the Bookchoice app, where we act more like an access model. And you can read and listen on virtually any device - Kindle, smartphone, tablet, laptop. We're all about simplicity. Simple access across multiple devices, one simple price point, a simple and easy to navigate app and website, and a simplified route into choosing your next read.

Crucially, when Bookchoice is considered in this world of new business models we position ourselves a membership model, something distinctly different from subscription. We have a unique, transparent and understandable business model towards the publisher and agent, and we provide incredible reach to new readers through B2B partnerships with telecoms, banking, FMCG brands, travel companies and much more - all places publishers largely don't reach. And as part of the Netherlands' largest publishing and book retail group, we know first-hand the rewards that this means for authors. This means a new income stream, a incredible market reach, an uplift in print sales and no cannibalisation of projected print or a la carte sales.

Not every book subscription service has been successful. What have been the lessons of the past few years?
In terms of success, it depends which markets you're looking at. For example, in Scandinavia and parts of Northern Europe some ebook and audiobook subscription models are incredibly successful - and in the former's case they are virtually the only digital income stream for publishers and authors. For publishers agreeing to a subscription model, it is not a binary discussion, it's a matter of when, where, how and under which commercial terms. The lessons I'd encourage publishers and agents to draw upon are simple: don't base any decisions on individual markets or misinformation and presumptions, make your choices founded upon your own knowledge, data, experience and experimentation. And most importantly maybe, make these decisions based on what's appropriate per market. If a subscription model is the biggest digital revenue stream in a market and/or the biggest reach generator to new audiences, then why on earth would you withhold that income stream and reach from your authors and yourselves (publishers and agents)?

Clearly, consumers are happy with the subscription model when buying audiobooks. Can book subscriptions work just as well, or only in certain circumstances?
Arguably - again dependent on the market - consumers are as happy with ebook platforms as they are with audiobook services. The difference is that in the all-you-can-eat world (one that Bookchoice distinctly chose not to operate in), there's a lot more trepidation from publishers about signing the ebook agreements - whereas Audible paved the way for audiobooks years ago, and therefore the precedent was set. So the lack of a consistently strong selection of books from major authors and publishers on some ebook services (particularly in the US and UK) has seen questionably sustainable services in the launch ebook space.

This is, of course, compounded by the fact that the majority of ebook subscription models have been revenue share models, which publishers are understandably reluctant to work with. The challenges of revenue share see publishers and agents faced with the conundrum of deciphering an inconsistent, fluctuating, opaque income stream. The benefits of any new services shouldn't be judged in isolation on their ability to generate revenue either. It should be a multi-lensed view including the benefits of marketing reach, uplift against print, cross-marketing of authors and reaching new audiences.

Do attitudes to subscriptions vary internationally?
Every market's requirements are different, as consumers' purchasing and consumption habits vary hugely. Publishers do recognise this, but are reluctant to talk about their occasional experimentation and operations internationally. It's common to read the negative comments about the topic or that "publisher x doesn't do subscription" - but of course they do, there's just an odd reluctance to discuss it openly.

In audio, I'd struggle to name a publisher that isn't commercialising its content through the likes of Audible or Storytel for example - both of which are subscription services. In Germany, the Skoobe ebook service was co-founded by Random House and Holtzbrink. In Spain, Penguin Random House and Planeta are both working with multiple ebook subscription platforms with different angles and lists. In Scandinavia, Benelux, France, Italy, Poland, the Baltics, UAE, Brazil, Latin America, the Far East, new subscription models are establishing themselves regularly - so it really isn't a case of whether to be a part of this, but how. Publishers and agents need to understand the changing requirements of the new millennial reader and figure out what is appropriate; not to sit in a state digital inertia.

Having worked on multiple sides of this now aged debate - digital director at PRH in the UK, CBDO at Mofibo (pay per book all-you-can-read) in Scandinavia and Bookchoice (curated service) in Benelux - I understand the concerns and pressures very well from the publisher and agent communities. Moreover, I understand the opportunity at hand, the developing requirements of the millennial consumer and the potential that subscriptions, memberships and new models offer as a route to finding and satisfying the new reader, creating a competitive business landscape and empowering decisions on the usage data that many of these services are willing to share. The future isn't binary, so let's not approach it as so. The solution isn't complicated - simply experiment within some easy parameters, be open-minded, and determine the appropriate methods to reach your potential readers of the future.

Nathan Hull is chief commercial and content officer at Bookchoice.

Subscription models - Huw Alexander