It is one of the few ebook subscription services to launch globally, but has faced a tough time since Amazon launched its Kindle Unlimited service in 2014. It culled most of the romance books from its catalogue in June 2015, limited audio books to one per month from September 2015 and limited ebook reads to three per month from March 2016.

The books in Scribd's premium catalogue are provided by publishers who each negotiate a separate deal with Scribd, but self-publishers need to go through an aggregator service. Both Smashwords and Draft 2 Digital will gain a self-publisher access to Scribd's service and the self-publisher will have their own imprint listed as publisher (initially the aggregator was listed as publisher). Audio book uploads are not available to self-publishers.

Scribd Page Problem

There was a brief flurry of negative publicity for the eBook lending library service Scribd when one of their main distributors Smashwords revealed that Scribd were culling 80% or more of their romance and erotica holdings. The flurry was brief because the news broke on 30th June, a day before Amazon sent out emails to its independent publishers that hinted at a future payment on their Kindle Unlimited library service of $0.006 per page read. That Smashwords article was written by their founder Mark Coker, who elsewhere has claimed that Scribd began raising this cull with them a week previously. That means that Scribd decided to act a week after Amazon informed authors on 15th June that it was moving its Kindle Unlimited remuneration of self-publishers from a per book to a per page read basis. From the various pieces of digital ink that have been spilled on the Scribd decision I have yet to see any articles homing in on the link to the Kindle Unlmited change, so I am making up for that lack in this comment piece.

The official line from Scribd revealed in a letter to Smashwords is that romance and erotica titles are proving too popular and they had to be culled in order for their business to be sustainable. An eBook subscription service runs off a gym membership business model in that it hopes that most of its members will underuse the service and so compensate for those who read a lot of books on the service. The official spin from Scribd is that this gym membership model cannot survive unless the fitness fanatics known as romance and erotica readers are curtailed.The timing of the unembargoing of the decision cannot be ignored in assessing what lies behind the spin. Smashwords would have received Scribd's permission to post the full text of their letter on the Smashwords' blog and the embargo appears to have been deliberately timed for the day before Kindle Unlimited switched to a pay per page publisher compensation. I suspect that that is more than just a way to bury bad news.

That remuneration change at Kindle Unlimited appears designed to move their service towards longer texts and is a response to many self-publishing authors removing their longer books from the Amazon-exclusive Kindle Select programme in order to avoid being part of the Kindle Unlimited service. Scribd's library membership totals will have been assisted by the limited supply of longer texts available in the misnamed Kindle Unlimited service. A change that remunerates longer texts better could potentially see a membership drift from Scribd to Kindle Unlimited, which would be highly damaging for Scribd's gym membership business model. The worst case scenario for Scribd would be to lose its less active members, while retaining the most voracious. In that light it is likely that the change to Kindle Unlimited precipitated a decision that Scribd might have referred to take longer to mull over.

So it would appear that Scribd does have a page problem in that its business model is threatened by Knidle Unlimited's move to a pay per page read publisher compensation system. There is another page problem that may point to Scribd's problem not being caused by romance readers, even if it is caused by readers of romance novels. When I was at school teenage boys would steal the girls' magazines so that they could read the problems page and laugh at what teenage girls were writing about boys. Those boys were reading the female-targeted magazine, but they were not really the magazine's readers, they were its problem page voyeurs. Something similar may have been happening at Scribd in making romance books an unsustainable presence in their library. Non-romance readers who just wanted the sex scenes might have been quickly paging through the book to get to the naughty bits, which in romance books are often well after the 30% point that triggers a full payout to a publisher. So Scribd's main problem with romance books may not have been romance readers, but erotica readers looking for the erotic scenes in the romance novels. I should note that while Scribd has a twofold page problem with romance novels it does have a problem if they are free. A free novel is gold dust to the gym membership business model as it means that a subscriber is spending time on reading a book for which Scribd will not have to pay any publisher compensation.

There are special reasons why romance and erotica titles are causing a problem for Scribd and they go beyond typically voracious readers. The problem page analogy shows a way in which romance novels are particularly susceptible to quick paging through of multiple novels in one day. The prominent publishing blog Ink Bits & Pixels opined that Scribd would soon come after other genres with nearly as voracious readers as romance, particularly citing science fiction and fantasy. However the quick page through issue will not apply as there is not an equivalent type of scene to page through for. More likely would be murder mystery novels that do not contain the murder within the first 30% and may trigger publisher compensation from readers who want to know what sort of body is found in what type of library before committing to reading the whole novel. That is unlikely to have the same level of page-throughs as romance and my suspicion is that other genres will not be targeted and romance has been targeted not because of its voracious readers, but because of the attraction of its novels to page through erotica readers.

In terms of my own publications I will continue to judge on a case by case basis whether to have a book exclusive to Amazon and therefore in Kindle Unlimited or whether to be non-exclusive so that the book can be placed in Scribd. The week before Amazon announced the switch to pay per page read Seattle in Shorts and Inquest into a Campaign came to the end of their three month stint in Kindle Select. Had the announcement been made while they were in Kindle Select I might have kept them there, but they will be kept in Scribd, because it is useful to be able to market them via offering enhanced free trials at Scribd (see below). The day that the Kindle Unlimited change took effect was the last day in Kindle Select for Forgiveness and it will not be returning to Kindle Unlimited as the likely publisher compensation for a six page short story will be five cents. For similar reasons I availed of the Amazon offer to withdraw books early from Kindle Select and so the seven page Make my Joy Complete was removed. That leaves just Poetry from a Mistimed Youth in Kindle Unlimited, where it will stay for the foreseeable future. It will be joined by other books in the pipeline with the possibility of switching them non-exclusive after three months in Kindle Select. The difference is with any book under 5000 words, which will almost certainly stay away from Kindle Unlimited, because for such a short text I have a page problem.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved.

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