A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s new e-book subscription program. I mentioned that Amazon was not the first e-book seller to try the subscription model. Today I’d like to take a look at Scribd, one of the other sellers trying the subscription route.

Scribd advertises a collection somewhat smaller than Amazon’s 600,000 titles*, but unlike the big A, they have agreements with HarperCollins and other traditional publishers. In addition to “books,” whether self- or traditionally-published, Scribd also has a large collection of what they call “member-contributed documents”.

* I’ve seen estimates ranging from 400,000 to 500,000. The variation may reflect change over time, or it may reflect different ways of counting the “member-contributed documents”.

Payment to authors is more transparent than Amazon’s plan. Scribd pays nothing for browsing the first 10% of a book, the same as Amazon. Between 10% and 30%, authors will receive partial payment (10% of full royalties). If a reader goes beyond 30% of the book, the author will receive full royalties: whatever they would have received for a sale through a non-subscription distributor. Recall that Amazon’s deal is a simple “you get paid if a reader goes beyond 10%,” but since they don’t discuss how much you get paid, there’s no way to tell which distributor offers the author a better deal. My suspicion is that authors will do slightly better per-read on Scribd, but Amazon’s sheer size will result in more reads (on the average).

In order to track actual readership and percent read, Scribd subscription books can only be read on the Scribd website or through their Android and iOS apps. Reasonable, and similar to Amazon’s restriction of reading to Kindles or Kindle apps. It is, however, disappointing to anyone who has a favorite e-book reader.

In the Kindle Unlimited discussion, I pointed out that KU will live or die based on the quality of their recommendation software. The same is true of Scribd. Amazon needs to shift away from “another cheap title by the same author” to “books similar to this one”. Scribd already has a “books similar to this one” core to its recommendation engine. However, it has some problems. At one point, it failed to recognize it was suggesting multiple different editions of the same title (On one search for books similar to Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency it suggested a specific Kurt Vonnegut title (and please forgive me for forgetting which one–it may have been Cat’s Cradle–at the time, I wasn’t planning on reviewing the service, so I wasn’t taking notes) more than twenty times.)

That does touch on another area where Scribd’s recommendation engine runs into trouble. The system allows for very specific classification of books, which means that recommendations can be very close, but it also means that the number of matching titles can be limited. Let’s face it, how many matches are they going to turn up for “Private Eye Mysteries Set In Idaho”? Probably fewer than “Private Eye Mysteries Set In LA,” which is an example Scribd uses.

Scribd is aware that they need to step up their game. Today I received an e-mail from them announcing that they’ve implemented “Thousands of new categories and personalized recommendations”; the enhancements include curated collections, editor’s notes, and “top books: trending, bestselling, and award-winning”. A more human touch will certainly help. Will it help enough to allow them to survive in a market dominated by Amazon? We’ll see.

As I said, Amazon’s biggest problem is the change in the business model. Scribd’s biggest problem is one of perception. In the past, they’ve had trouble policing the “member-contributed documents”. Scribd has apparently responded well to DMCA requests to remove unauthorized books, but I’ve seen a number of authors complain that they have not punished posters or taken steps to prevent the same books from being re-contributed. That perception by authors and publishers will make it difficult for Scribd to set up distribution deals with additional traditional publishers; since that’s a key piece of their differentiation from KU, they need to make changes in that area.

To their credit, Scribd is making changes designed to improve their reputation with authors and publishers. They’ve expanded the use of their content-scanning system to make it harder for members to repeatedly upload the same work, and they have made the DMCA complaint process simpler and more visible. That has helped, but there are still authors unhappy with where Scribd sets the balance between in-house prevention of copyright infringement and requiring authors to monitor Scribd’s library and report violations.

Bottom line: The subscription model is attractive to readers. If Scribd can overcome author and publisher resistance, continue to expand their library, and successfully publicize the titles they offer that Amazon doesn’t, they should thrive despite the competition from Amazon. As with Amazon’s ability to refocus their recommendation engine, it’s a very big “if”.

Stay tuned. This game is going into extra innings.

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