Using Scribd

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December 2013
by Linda Carlson

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Scribd soft-launched its streaming subscription plan early this year, and the plan recently got extensive publicity in the trade and business press because HarperCollins committed most of its backlist titles to the service. But independent publishers—including IBPA members—were already on board with sales or rental programs.

So far, although Time magazine called Scribd.com one of “10 start-ups that will change your life” in 2010, several IBPA members report using it more to create awareness than to sell books.

Founded in 2007, the San Francisco company (pronounced “scribbed,” short for “scribbled”) calls itself the world’s largest digital library, with more than 40 million books and documents available to read for free, a huge selection available to purchase, and a Netflix-style $8.99 monthly subscription service that allows streaming of thousands of front- and backlist titles.

Scribd can be used with any iOS and Android smartphone, tablet, or desktop, including such tablets as the Kindle Fire or Nook HD, but not with readers such as the Amazon Kindle or Nook Simple Touch.

Although co-founder Trip Adler recently told Publishers Marketplace that the company is already “paying some pretty significant revenue to publishers,” most of the publishers interviewed for this story consider Scribd a new means of creating visibility for their books, especially their backlists, rather than a source of income.

At Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, VT, for example, communications director Shay Totten reports: “We do not sell books through Scribd.com; we only offer selections or free downloads.”

C & T Publishing got dozens of titles uploaded this fall, so it’s too early for this publisher to determine whether Scribd helps with sales. “But making titles available on Scribd is consistent with our long-term goal,” publicity manager Megan Scott explains. That goal: “To make content available in the format and platform our readers desire while maximizing revenue for our authors.”

“We believe Scribd has done an excellent job at creating a unique opportunity for publishers and authors,” says Scott, “and we want to see how its business model works over the next 12 months.”

The crew at Red Wheel/Weiser/Conari is satisfied, reports publisher Jan Johnson, who made all the company’s digital titles available through the subscription program last summer. Red Wheel is not tracking to see whether Scribd rentals boost sales, either digital or print. But Johnson reports that her company has considered other streaming programs and sees the fact that the Scribd program is nonexclusive as an advantage.

By the Numbers

Berrett-Koehler Publishers can cite numbers about streaming, both via Scribd and via competing services. “We started posting excerpts on Scribd in 2008 and selling downloadable and online-reading versions of our e-books on it in 2009,” reports David Marshall, vice president of editorial and digital.

Today BK puts all its titles on Scribd, with a current total of more than 900 books and excerpts. “We also use Scribd for streaming general communications about our publishing program,” Marshall adds, mentioning “seasonal catalogs and public documents from our founder, Steve Piersanti, such as ‘The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing’ (almost 24,000 reads) and ‘What Good Is a Book Publisher?’ (almost 1,000 reads).”

Although Scribd does not provide data on how many free views or “reads” turn into purchases on its site, Marshall assumes that the sales that do result are via online retailers Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or the Apple iBookstore, because that’s where purchasers may already be registered.

By October, BK knew that its books had been “viewed” 4.1 million times, and that it had 23,000 “followers” on Scribd.

Marshall is optimistic about what Scribd and its competitors can do in generating sales to consumers, given BK’s experience with digital business-to-business sales. “Of our 50-plus digital distributors around the world, Books24x7 (a SkillSoft company) and Safari Online (a joint venture between Pearson and O’Reilly Media) have provided B2B subscription services for years based on our content, and this subscription revenue represents a significant part of our annual digital sales,” he reports.

Feats and Functionality

Adler told TechCrunch this fall that Scribd beats the competition because its approach is “device agnostic” with iPhone, iPad, and Android apps, as well as with Websites that work on both desktop and mobile browsers. To demonstrate the last point, the reporter wrote, “Adler gave me brief demos on a MacBook, an iPhone, and a Kindle Fire. The reading experience was synchronized across all three devices, so he could stop reading on one, then when he opened the book on another device, it would bring him to exactly where he left off.”

When interviewed by Wired in October, Adler said a publisher gets paid when a reader selects one of its books—and it gets paid in full only if the book is read in full. “We actually determine whether the book is read and make payments to the publisher based on that,” Adler said.

Back in 2010, Time called the economics of Scribd sales “appealing,” with the company taking a 20 percent cut of each sale, compared to the 30 percent that Amazon then took. But no publisher and no one at Scribd would comment on what publishers receive with the monthly plan, which compensates them for each book read by a subscriber.

Time’s coverage also praised the Scribd technology, which, it said, “makes the Web’s traditional vessel for documents, Adobe’s Portable Document Format, look anachronistic. Users can create a Scribd document from just about any file type and publish and share it in minutes.” The company Web site makes a similar claim, saying that its “conversion technology allows anyone to convert any book or document from virtually any format into a beautiful Webpage or mobile reading experience.”

If you’d like to preview it, see “Guides and FAQs” at Scribd.com and scroll down to “Publishing Content.”

One issue with Scribd technology: It has been difficult for it to find publisher names in the ONIX data feeds from distributors such as IPG. Although Scribd declined to comment on the problem, e-books published by Chicago Review Press and Chelsea Green are among those attributed on Scribd.com to IPG as “publisher.” At this writing, in mid-October, Clark Matthews—IPG vice president, digital services—has reported that Scribd is pursuing a correction.

Competitors and Partners

Similar subscription services for books include Oyster (oysterbooks.com), based in New York, which charges users $9.95 per month for its iPhone app; and eReatah (ereatah.com), based in Wilmington, NC, which has tiered pricing starting at $14.99. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Melville House are among the publishers working with Oyster. HarperCollins is providing some titles to both services; Simon & Schuster is supplying eReatah.

Berrett-Koehler’s Marshall notes that his company submits titles to Scribd via CoreSource, the digital asset management system from Ingram Digital (an affiliate of print book wholesaler Ingram). “Scribd has a CoreSource channel to pick up our EPUB and PDF files and accompanying metadata for distribution on the Scribd site,” he explains.

“We think this is the wave of the future,” Marshall says—“streaming books from the cloud using HTML5 instead of providing content in a downloadable container to mobile devices, which takes up memory space on the devices. Downloads,” he adds, “will become especially cumbersome as rich media and interactive elements inside the e-books become commonplace in the coming years.”


Linda Carlson writes for the Independent from Seattle. You can use Facebook to preview her work-in-progress, Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results.

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