Summary:

Reference publishers are suffering since so much information is available free on the internet. Ebook subscription site Scribd sees reference books as a key component of its service and announced a partnership with Wiley on Wednesday.

Scribd Wiley partnership
photo: Scribd

Ebook subscription service Scribd, which charges users $8.99 per month for unlimited access to a library of about 300,000 ebooks, plans to announce Wednesday that it’s added about 1,000 books from reference publisher Wiley — including the well-known “For Dummies” series — to its offerings.

That 1,000 figure encompasses most of the under-$40 books in Wiley’s catalog. More expensive titles, like $100-plus textbooks, aren’t included.

In addition, Scribd, which makes its service available through the web and a number of apps, is offering special terms to reference publishers — so far, just Wiley and the recently added Lonely Planet — to encourage them to make their books available, and to acknowledge the fact that few people will read reference works in full.

Ebook subscription sites, or “Netflix for books,” are still in their infancy — in addition to Scribd, the other main player in the space is the New York-based startup Oyster — but one of the main questions about them so far has been how they can pay publishers fairly for including their titles, and what happens if a user only reads a few pages. That’s especially likely with reference books that a reader is unlikely to read from cover to cover.

Now on Scribd, when a user reads a chunk of a reference book, the publisher gets a fraction of the book’s wholesale price. From there, “if they read a larger fraction of the book and cross a certain threshold, then we pay the full [wholesale] price as if they sold the book,” CEO Trip Adler told me. This is different from the company’s payment model for fiction and general nonfiction: In those categories, the publisher is paid only once the reader reaches a certain threshold in the book.

Under this model, reference publishers can monetize readers who are accessing just a small part of the book for a bit of information. And that could be an intriguing prospect for those who have seen sales suffer because so much reference content is free on the internet. They might as well see if they can wring a little extra revenue out of these titles.

Adler wouldn’t tell me how many paying members the service has, but he said that membership is growing at about 60 percent per month and that subscription revenues are “becoming a big chunk of the company’s overall revenue.” (That revenue also includes à la carte book sales and advertising for non-subscribers.) Adler also said that when the service first launched, users tended to search for specific titles, but now “the majority of behavior” is browsing for something to read. (Remind you of Netflix?)

*That percentage varies by publisher: Some publishers — including, presumably, HarperCollins, the only big-five publisher making its books available to Scribd (or Oyster) so far — receive more favorable terms. Adler wouldn’t specify further, but he did suggest that while Scribd experimented with partial payments for fiction at one point, the company has “mostly stopped doing that.”

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