Why Are E-Book Subscription Start-Ups So Hot?
For $8.99 per month, Scribd subscribers get unlimited access to a catalog of what the company calls "millions" of books and other documents, all available on iPhone, iPad, Android devices and Web browsers. HarperCollins has signed on to the program, making much of its backlist available, and other publishers include Kensington, Sourcebooks and Workman. While many frontlist titles won't be included in the subscription, they will be available for purchase through Scribd.
Scribd's announcement follows on the heels of Oyster, which launched as an iPhone-only app in early September. With Oyster, currently available on an invitation basis, subscribers pay $9.95 per month for access to more than 100,000 e-books from HarperCollins and other, smaller publishers. Also in the space are eReatah, a book-club style subscription service with tiered plans ranging from $14.99 to $29.99, and Amazon's Kindle Lending Library, a program provided to all Amazon Prime members.
Though movie and music subscription sites like Netflix and Spotify have been paving the way for years, it seems like the time has finally come for readers. "Subscription is a great new model to get a new type of reader paying for your books," says Scribd co-founder Trip Adler. "When people have a subscription, they end up reading more."
According Adler, their goal is to make Scribd's service "as simple as possible on the reader side--like being in the world's largest library."
Speaking of Libraries ...
OMG, seriously, people, they already have a "Netflix for books." It's called a LIBRARY. And it's free. #headdesk-; Heather C Hart (@heatherchart) October 1, 2013
According to the American Library Association, 76 percent of U.S. libraries offered access to e-books in 2012, up nearly 10 percent from 2011. So why would start-ups be trying to sell a service that already comes free?
The short answer is that library e-book programs aren't consistent or simple. First off, availability depends on where in the country you are: the ALA reports that while 92 percent of urban libraries offer the option to patrons, just 65 percent of rural libraries do.
Even where it's offered, many people don't know about it. According to the ALA, "58 percent of all library card holders said they did not know whether their library provides e-book lending services." Just 12 percent of e-book readers they surveyed had checked one out from the library in the past year.
Then there's the problem of complexity: borrowing e-books from the library can be time-consuming and frustrating. K.T. Bradford at DigitalTrends.com explains:
Borrowing an e-book involves a ridiculous number of steps: You must create a free Adobe account, download Adobe software onto your computer, start an account with your local library, connect up those two accounts, and finally sideload the books onto the e-reader via USB.
But What About the Selection?
With only one of the "Big 5" publishers currently signed on to both Scribd and Oyster, book availability seems like one area that libraries lead on, at least for now. It's hard to see how a service that provides no access to Penguin Random House books, for example, could be as tempting to serious readers, given how much content would be unavailable.
But, while libraries do have access to a wider range of books, those aren't always available to readers immediately, thanks in part to complex and long-standing arguments over pricing, which differ by publisher.
Jo Budler, Kansas's state librarian, recently explained to NPR that, while an e-book might cost $10 for a consumer, some publishers might charge libraries up to $85. "We have some publishers who say, you could buy a book, but it only belongs to you for a year," she said. "And then there are other ones who say, you can have a title but after 26 checkouts, it's gone."
As a paid subscription model, Scribd is able to offer publishers what seems like a more appealing deal: they use a formula to determine a publisher's cut per read, based on what percentage of the book is actually read.
"We started the company to help publishers of all kinds distribute and monetize books," says Adler. He believes that their model "ultimately gives more return revenue to publishers." If publishers agree, more may decide to start signing on to this or similar programs, improving the selection.
Despite the providing-unlimited-books-to-readers similarity, Adler thinks any comparison to library lending is offbase. "We love libraries," he says. "We're very spiritually aligned with libraries and trying to accomplish the same thing of getting more books to more people. But we're doing something completely different: creating a whole new experience around books, discovering them and reading them on any device you'd like."
For Adler, the real competition is other media sources like movies and music. "At the end of the day, people have pretty limited time," he says. "By providing a better experience, we can ultimately get people reading more books."