In 2014, Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, an e-book subscription service that charges subscribers a monthly fee for unlimited access to a catalogue of over 600,000 books. Kindle Unlimited was Amazon’s breakthrough into a competitive market with other subscription services such as Scribd, which was launched in 2012. Netflix’s international success inspired start-up companies like Scribd to take on a similar concept yet with a different technology; e-books. Netflix earned “more than $5 billion in 2014, so it was no wonder companies wanted to create ‘the Netflix’ of other types of digital media such as e-books” (Owen, 2015). Scribd was quickly gaining appeal with their consumers which prompted Amazon to jump on board with the trend. In the year 2012, a “percentage of Americans who owned e-reading devices doubled. The year prior, Amazon announced it was selling more e-books than print books — hardcover and paperback combined” (Price,2012). It took some time for Amazon to establish their platform in this category, but by 2014, Amazon was confident in Kindle Unlimited and its ability to become a strong competitor in this new style of reading.
Kindle Unlimited currently charges $9.99 per month whereas Scribd charges a slightly cheaper rate of $8.99 per month. Both Kindle Unlimited and Scribd are targeting an audience of speedy readers or those looking to read on a consistent basis, each providing a thirty-day free trial. The New York Times even agreed that “the deal sounds appealing. Someone who reads two or more books a month could save a little money. For those who read far more, the savings could be substantial” (Wood, 2014). Kindle Unlimited and Scribd also include audiobooks in their catalogues which have become a popular e-book reading preference with consumers. Trip Adler, CEO of Scribd, was impressed with the results of adding audiobooks to their catalogue. A year after audiobooks were launched on the subscription service, Adler stated that “reading time on Scribd has doubled and 84% of people listening to audiobooks on the service also read e-books” (Alter, 2015). This was phenomenal progress for the company, as well as the publishers. Kindle Unlimited also enhanced the features of their audiobooks by syncing the reader’s place in a book. Both companies are competitive by offering different features, however Scribd has been reviewed as the most ‘hassle free’ of the two.
Subscribers of Kindle Unlimited have the ability to browse for free and paid-for e-books in Amazon’s catalogue. Mixing their free catalogue with paid for e-books, is Amazon’s way of increasing profits. Amazon also uses the Kindle to their advantage because you cannot use a Kindle to read content on Scribd. Many readers prefer Scribd because it is a more appealing alternative to those who are turned off from capitalist companies such as Amazon who influence consumers to stay current with the latest technology. Amazon excels at persuading consumers to spend more money, which is something Scribd steers away from. For those who don’t have the ‘Kindle’ reader and are satisfied reading on their computer or Android tablet, Scribd is a competitive option.
Scribd was “initially designed as a platform to distribute academic papers and quickly evolved into a subscription platform for books in general” (McElhearn,2014). Scribd is attracting the likes of self-publishers with their ‘Scribd Membership Program’. The membership program allows the publisher to place their work on the service providing instant access to the readers. This program also allows self-publishers to be compensated by Scribd while their work is getting noticed. Scribd looks at self-published content as “a perfect situation for readers since a monthly fee grants them unlimited access to all those titles and perfect for our authors who now have a large audience of readers” (David, 2016). Each self-publishing author is paid every time a subscriber reads their work, while publishing companies who have given access to their books are compensated at retail price every time their book gets a read.
Scribd has been beneficial for self-publishers due to the increased publicity, compensation and creativity, but at the same time has become detrimental to the company. Unfortunately, the program has deceived its subscribers who, are promised a choice of 400,000 books in their catalogue. The Scribd catalogue now includes approximately 50% of self-published work leaving e-book subscribers unsatisfied. The Scribd “promise” of access to 400,000 books is actually a lot of “documents, such as catalogs, court filings, instruction manuals, comics, PDFS and more” (McElhearn, 2014). This has been a turnoff for subscribers who find themselves sorting through thousands of e-books looking for preferred or specific titles. Not only are Scribd subscribers disappointed, they feel lied to. In addition, thousands of the advertised books are unavailable to readers outside of big name publishing countries like the United States and United Kingdom. It would be very frustrating for a subscriber to sort through thousands of titles that are either unavailable or are of the self-published variety.
Kindle Unlimited subscribers are limited to the number of newly released e-books because of Amazon’s inability to make deals with big name publishers. Amazon has poor relationships with big name companies and as a result “none of the big five publishing houses — HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, Hachette or Simon & Schuster — are on board. So Kindle Unlimited is lacking many popular and newer books” (Wood, 2014). If the subscriber is looking for classics, Kindle Unlimited is the preferred subscription service to sign up for. For those who are paying a ten-dollar monthly fee and under using their subscription, may be more interested in making a one-off purchase from Amazon for a few extra dollars, than burdening themselves with a monthly commitment.
Fast forward to February 2016, Scribd has had to re-vamp their subscription model. Scribd is now limiting subscribers to a maximum of three e-books and audiobooks combined per month. For the same price of $8.99, Scribd subscribers have been stripped of their privilege to an unlimited supply of e-books. The new format issues subscriber’s monthly credits, where each book holds a credit. If these credits are not used, they will carry over to the next month and accumulate until the reader uses them. The Scribd CEO, Trip Adler, insists that this change will not affect the readership considering “97% of its customers read less than three books per month” (Albanese, 2016). There is much speculation that this change was crucial in order for the company to avoid bankruptcy. As a result, Scribd has had to cut back on specific genres in their catalogue, most notably Romance titles. The Romance readers were reading so many e-books that it was becoming too difficult for Scribd to maintain financial stability. Simultaneously, in order for Scribd to secure top publishers, they had no choice but to pay them full retail price, a compensation plan that proved to be unsuccessful.
The question remains, are e-book subscriptions worth subscribing to? In my opinion, the answer is no. In the article Words with Friends: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads, Lisa Nakamura discusses that in our digital age, “we are both collecting and being collected under a new regime of controlled consumerism, where society of controlled consumption is premised on the transformation of the consumer from subject to object of capitalist accumulation” (Nakamura, 2013, p.241). Unfortunately, Scribd exposed the flaws in their business plan as well as the evident cracks in the subscription model. It was essential for Scribd to change their layout in order to survive in a market with powerhouse companies like Amazon. Their false hope that readers would pay the subscription fee and not actually use the service seemed to have worked against them.
I believe that e-books are an essential part of digital media but I don’t think the publishing industry is ready for e-book subscriptions at this time. The publishing industry attempts to interact with digital media and is constantly creating “new social valences of reading” (Nakamura,2013, p.238). The publishing industry insists that “reading new platforms and apparatuses are central to determine the reading experience in attempt to suture it to a discourse futurity” (p.238). Scribd has struggled to keep up with the demands of the publishing industry and the voracious readers who were eager to engage with this new model of digital media. Nakamura explains that our generation is now asking questions like ‘how are you reading?’ or ‘what are you reading on?’ and if a service based model of consumption cannot keep up by providing desired and available books, maybe a subscription service just isn’t enough to survive in a “fetishized culture of product innovation” (p.238).
Although Scribd is abandoning their old model and have lost subscribers as a result, it doesn’t mean the future of subscription e-books is necessarily dead. The New York Times said it best, “e-book subscriptions seem like a logical evolution in the world of on-demand digital media, but the full potential simply isn’t realized yet” (Woods, 2014). While I don’t think the publishing industry is ready for e-book subscription services now, there may be opportunities in the future. It will be interesting to observe how Kindle Unlimited and Scribd will maintain sustainability in the e-reader market.
Albanese, A. (2016, February 16). Scribd Revises its Subscription Model. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/69414-scribd-tweaks-its-subscription-model.html
Alter, A. (2015, April 16). Scribd Expands Audiobook Catalog in Deal with Penguin Random House. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/17/business/media/scribd-expands-audiobook-catalog-in-deal-with-penguin-random-house.html?_r=0
Hoffelder, N. (2016, February 16). Scribd Just Gutted its E-book Service. Retrieved from http://the-digital-reader.com/2016/02/16/scribd-just-gutted-its-ebook-service/
McElhearn, K. (2014, May 22). Scribd is just like Netflix for eBooks; and Just as Sucky. Retrieved from http://www.mcelhearn.com/scribd-is-like-netflix-for-ebooks-and-just-as-sucky/
Nakamura, Lisa. (2013, January). “Words with Friends”: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads. PMLA 128 (1). 238-243. Retrieved from https://lnakamur.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/nakamura-22words-with-friends22-pmla.pdf
Owen, L. (2015, July 1). What Scribd’s growing pains means for the future of digital content subscription models. Retrieved from http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/07/what-scribds-growing-pains-mean-for-the-future-of-digital-content-subscription-models/
Price, L. (2012, August 10). Dead Again. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/books/review/the-death-of-the-book-through-the-ages.html?_r=0
David, P. (2016, October 16). Scribd Help Center. Retrieved from https://support.scribd.com/hc/en-us/articles/210129306-How-do-authors-benefit-from-Scribd-s-premium-membership-program
Wood, M. (2014, August 6). Aiming to be the Netflix of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/07/technology/personaltech/aiming-to-be-the-netflix-of-books.html?_r=1