Scribd: Does My Romance Bum Look Big in This?

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Scribd is an e-book subscription service and there is no doubt that the e-book subscription model is a growing path of book discovery for avid readers. In essence, the reader agrees to pay a monthly set subscription fee and this allows them to download and read an unlimited or prescribed number of books over a period of time. Platforms using the e-book subscription model work out the revenue stream to pay publishers and authors based on a read/borrow algorithm. Get this right, and everyone is happy. The e-book subscriptions model looks promising, but in an ever-changing book industry, it is still in its infancy.

Yesterday, Scribd contacted publishers with the following communication:

Dear Publisher,

 

As you know, in starting Scribd, we bore the majority of the risk when establishing a business model that paid publishers the same amount as the retail model for each book read by a Scribd subscriber. Now, nearly two years later, the Scribd catalog has grown from 100,000 titles to more than one million. We’re proud of the service we’ve built and we’re constantly working to expand the selection across genres to give our readers the broadest possible list of books for $8.99 per month.

 

We’ve grown to a point where we are beginning to adjust the proportion of titles across genres to ensure that we can continue to expand the overall size and variety of our service. We will be making some adjustments, particularly to romance, and as a result some previously available titles may no longer be available.

 

We look forward to continuing to grow subscribers, increase overall reading, and increase total publisher payouts in a way that works for everyone over the long term. We of course want to keep as many of your authors and titles on Scribd as we can, so we’d love to discuss our plans and how we can best work with you going forward.

 

Thank you for your business.

It’s created quite some conversation (and concern too) in the publishing community and you can read the discussion here, here and here. The last link is via Smashwords founder and CEO, Mark Coker. Coker expressed his concerns with the latest moves by Scribd in a frank blog post yesterday:

Effective immediately, I estimate 80-90 percent of Smashwords romance and erotica titles will be dropped by Scribd, including nearly all of our most popular romance titles.  Books priced at free are safe and will remain in their catalog.

 

Based on what I’ve been able to glean, the lower the price and the higher the word count, the better the odds the book will remain.  Few books priced $3.99 and above will remain.  Scribd is not publicly revealing the formulas for what stays and what goes, probably because much of this is still in flux. They’re cutting all publishers and distributors with the same blunt knife.

 

It’s ugly.  The problem for Scribd is that romance readers are heavy readers, and Scribd pays publishers retailer-level margins for the books.

I referred above to the model of business that e-book subscription platforms use. It’s a tricky business. I’ve some accurate comparison used over the past twenty four hours to describe getting the model right so it pays publishers and authors fairly while maintaining a growing subscription base. Publishing consultant and writing tutor Jane Friedman most aptly described the risks in the subscription model last night:

Imagine going to an all-you-can-eat buffet, and eating about 10x as much as anyone else, but paying the same price. That’s what’s happening with romance readers who subscribe to these “all you can read” ebook subscription services. The romance demographic has made it so unprofitable, this specific service is removing 80-90% of the most popular “food” (romance titles) to keep the business model viable.

Of all book genres, romance eaters readers tend to be the most voracious and you could argue that sci-fi and fantasy readers are not too far behind, but the Scribd communication does seem to be making particular mention of romance books. It should be noted that Scribd entered a partnership with HarperCollins-owned Harlequin last year to add 15,000 titles from several backlist imprints for rental. However, Scribd CEO and founder Trip Adler was quick to tell The Bookseller that it is not singling out any specific publisher or e-book publishing platform.

Over the past two years, the Scribd catalog has grown from 100,000 titles to more than one million. We’re proud of the service we’ve built and we’re constantly working to expand the selection across genres to give our readers the broadest possible list of books for $8.99 per month. We’ve grown to a point where we are beginning to adjust the proportion of titles across genres to ensure that we can continue to expand the overall size and variety of our service. We will be making some adjustments, particularly to romance, and as a result some previously available titles may no longer be available. There are still thousands of romance titles and a lifetime of books to read in the romance genre and beyond. We look forward to continuing to grow subscribers, increase overall reading, and increase total publisher payouts in a way that works for everyone over the long term.

Returning to our ‘big bums’ headline, the prolific and insightful Porter Anderson prefers the fitness club rather than Friedman’s all-you-can-eat subscription restaurant:

Even then, the question of these programmes’ financial viability was easily paralleled with the challenge of the unlimited-usage fitness club membership, the big question being: what if all the members come to the gym?

 

All-you-can-read subscription programs, like fitness programmes, are predicated on the assumption that most subscribers will not use them, or at least won’t use them with any serious regularity. Scribd’s model makes a retail-value payment per borrow for each title. The romance-reading community, famed for its high rate of content consumption, thus is like part of a fitness club membership overrunning the workout equipment, costing the service more, apparently, than is sustainable.

As Scribd undergo their fine-tuning program, it remains to be seen how this will play out, and whether traditional publishers are putting the skids on Scribd for a better platform of discoverability for their books, rather than an unsustainable quagmire where everyone with big bums and empty tummies have all turned up at once for $8.99 to eat and work out.

Smashwords is not the only e-book publishing platform with concerns. Emerging player Draft2Digital’s Dan Wood told Cool Gus publisher Bob Mayer of the potential impact on his client authors:

Scribd took a significant risk putting in place a model that paid authors the same amount as a retail model for each book read by a subscriber. As we all know, romance readers tend to be incredibly avid readers. In trying to cater to this voracious readership while under this progressive payment model, Scribd has put itself in a difficult place. In a bid to better balance these operating expenses, Scribd is immediately slashing the volume of romance novels in its subscription service. If you are receiving this email, then you are a Draft2Digital author who has published books in the romance genre to Scribd. This means that some or all of your romance novels are likely going to be delisted from their service today.

My own thoughts on this is that Scribd has set itself as a leader in e-book subscription, but I’m not sure ‘culling’ or ‘purging’ their catalogue in whatever genre is the correct approach. I’d rather see various levels of improved subscription and access. Otherwise, we are back to the old publishing nutshell — whether reader, author or publisher — you don’t get to make up the rules when you sign up to a platform and you are subject to the capacity, functionality and whims of that platform.

 

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