Heartbroken: Scribd Cuts Its Romance Inventory

bleeding ereaderLast week, authors of romance and erotica titles had more than just the Kindle Unlimited payout changes to worry about. Also, the eBook subscription service Scribd announced it would drop most of its romance titles as fast as a girl who’s offered a better prom date.

Apparently Scribd didn’t realize that romance fans read a lot of books. A lot of books. Any outfit that charges a membership fee – like a gym or, hey, a book subscription service – counts on a percentage of the members dropping out or otherwise not turning up to use the facilities. Those fees help to keep the lights on while not putting any strain on the resources. (So when you bought that two-year gym membership and then quit going after two weeks, you were actually helping other members! How altruistic of you!)

On the other hand, such businesses always have superusers, or people who use more resources than their membership fee pays for. Ideally, things should balance out – that is, the non-users’ fees should cover the superusers’ overuse, and still give the business owners a profit.

That’s not how things were working out for Scribd. Romance readers were going through so many books each month that their $8.95-per-month subscriptions were costing the company money. Compounding the situation is Scribd’s policy of paying publishers the same percentage on borrows as the publisher gets at retail. So the service made the draconian decision to drop a chunk of its catalog.

We could debate whether that move was the best choice, or whether a different alternative would have served everyone better (and please feel free to give your view in the comments). But this is the way things are going to be – at least for now.

Smashwords is one of the publishers taking a hit, and Mark Coker gave some details on his blog last week. Free books will stay, he said, and books priced between free and $3.99 have a better chance of surviving than those priced at $3.99 and up. He also said Scribd is leaning toward keeping eBooks with higher word counts.

Scribd isn’t the only eBook subscription provider going through changes. In April, Oyster set up shop as an eBook retailer, while maintaining its $9.95-a-month subscription service (the same price Amazon charges for Kindle Unlimited). Oyster clearly intends to challenge Amazon for the top spot among booksellers worldwide. Willem Van Lancker with Oyster told Business Insider earlier this year that his company wants to be “the most creative and interesting company in books.”

Amazon could certainly use the competition. But from an indie point of view, one thing both Scribd and Oyster lack is a direct route into their catalog. Amazon has KDP and Apple has iBooks, but indies must use Smashwords to distribute to Oyster (and Scribd). Draft2Digital distributes to Scribd, but not to Oyster as of yet.

Some big-name indie authors have suggested over the past few days that book subscription services are the wave of the future. Consumers, they argue, would rather borrow digital copies of music and movies these days than own them – think Spotify and Netflix – and they believe the same thing will eventually happen with eBooks. Book subscription services are so new that it’s anyone’s guess whether that prediction will come true – and, assuming it does, what it will do to author earnings. But one thing is certain: the business will keep changing, and we’ll have to keep changing with it.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

18 thoughts on “Heartbroken: Scribd Cuts Its Romance Inventory”

  1. De-valuing books was a big mistake in so many ways. 99 cents or free was even worse. If you don’t value your own book, who else will? As for Scribd, they seem to be as clueless as the rest of the book biz. They have probably cut off the biggest part of their business with this decision. As you say, Lynne, they read LOTS of books. They could have charged more per book or better yet, gotten rid of subscriptions or cut a better deal for people who “rent or purchase” more than x number of books. Yes, this shakeup continues. Thank you for your usual informative and helpful articles.

    1. I think cutting book prices is a valid marketing strategy (she said after having put the first book in her five-book series permafree just recently…). 😉 But I agree with you, Anne, that Scribd could have gone to a tiered pricing model instead of cutting their inventory wholesale. Seems to me like that’s a prescription for encouraging romance readers to go elsewhere — and many romance readers also read other genres.

  2. Discounting and sampling are proven promotional strategies for products that aren’t already known by consumers. I’d be completely unknown as an author (instead of just mostly unknown) if I never gave away or discounted my stuff. Your early books are your loss leaders. Hopefully Scribd will quickly come up with a new pricing plan for either super-users or romance titles. In the meantime, I’m sure they’re pissing off some of their customer base.

  3. P.S. Love the headline! And yes, I’ve been way too altruistic with Amazon Prime, Netflix, and all sorts of services. (Luckily I always knew better than to sign up at the gym.)

    1. I wish I could say that I’ve known better than to sign up for a gym, lol. And even though I’ve got the cheapest DVD subscription Netflix offers, I think they’re still making money off of me…

  4. So that brings a question to mind. If our books cross more than one genre, of which romance is one, should we leave off the romance category from out list of key words and categories?

  5. “The Awful Mess” is still in their catalog, and that’s tagged romance as well as women’s fiction and literary fiction. Of course, it’s not costing them much money as far as I can tell because I’ve yet to notice any income from that channel.

  6. Last year, Scrib’d offered a free 12 months subscription to Smashwords authors who put their books through Scrib’d.
    Yes, I have read way more than the value of that subscription! Helping lots of writers get paid!
    One thing I did discover is that, not only must a certain % of a book be read for a writer to get paid, but a certain amount of time must be spent by a reader on a book. This is having a drastic effect on picture book writers.
    Many picture books were not having the “certain amount of time” spent on them, so writers were not getting paid for them. Neither were distributors. Realistically, no one is going to spend the same amount of time on a picture book page as they would on a page full of text. Last I heard, time limits on books were being questioned.
    To sum up to all “lending libraries”: Don’t offer unlimited if you’re not going to keep your end of the deal with readers and writers. If you rip off writers and readers, you’ll lose them.

    1. Interesting about the picture books, Jeannie — and certainly unfair to the authors of those books. I know that children’s authors in Select have been worried about the same thing. We’ll have to keep an eye on KDP to see if they resolve it more fairly than Scribd apparently has.

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