There must be something in the water: Just under a month after startup Oyster launched a Netflix-like subscription service for ebooks, the six-year-old document sharing site Scribd officially rolled out its own ebook subscription service on Tuesday. Overall, the service is a strong contender in this emerging space, and if you’re trying to choose between Scribd and Oyster, you’ll have to consider selection, design and platform — more on each of those below.
Scribd’s service — which is just called “Scribd” — actually soft-launched with participation from some small publishers this past January, but the hook for Tuesday’s announcement is that Scribd has secured the bulk of “Big 5” publisher HarperCollins’ catalog for its service. The company won’t share how many titles it has in total, but says it has books from over 30 publishers, including “thousands” of bestsellers. Besides HarperCollins, participating publishers include Workman, Kensington, Sourcebooks, RosettaBooks and E-Reads, among others. Users can subscribe for $8.99 a month or can buy ebooks individually. They can also try the service free for a month.
“We want to be one of the most publisher-friendly companies out there,” Scribd cofounder and CEO Trip Adler told me. “It’s core to our strategy to build this for publishers just as much as readers … and at the end of the day, having the Big 5’s support” is crucial. Adler said that both book subscription revenue and subscriber numbers have grown by 60 percent each month since January.
HarperCollins is the only Big 5 publisher participating so far — just as HarperCollins is the only Big 5 publisher making its books available to Oyster. (Another recently launched ebook subscription service, eReatah, has participation from both HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster but offers a less appealing and more expensive model than either Scribd or Oyster — rather than being all-you-can-eat, it lets users choose 2, 3 or 4 ebooks per month, with monthly rates starting at $14.99.) But HarperCollins is making only some of its titles available to Oyster, while it’s offering nearly its entire U.S. and Christian backlist — defined as books that are over a year old — to Scribd subscribers.
Why HarperCollins favored Scribd: scale and platform choice
Both Adler and HarperCollins’ chief digital officer, Chantal Restivo-Alessi, stressed the same factors to me: Oyster is still in beta, while Scribd is a six-year-old company. Scribd has apps for web, iOS (s AAPL), Android (s GOOG) and Kindle (s AMZN) Fire, and books sync across platforms, while Oyster is only available on iPhone for now. And Scribd has an established user base. Adler told me the company has 80 million unique monthly visitors and 40 million free documents uploaded to its library. And, with “tens of millions in revenue” per year, the company is profitable.
“Oyster is a startup,” Restivo-Alessi told me. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a good proposition, but it’s limited. … We think [Scribd] already has reach, and the hardest thing is building audiences at scale.” As a result, HarperCollins is making only a selection of titles available through Oyster but said it is making “the majority” of its titles published before July 2012 available through Scribd.
Authors have the right to opt out. And Restivo-Alessi told me that HarperCollins “informally reached out” to several literary agents to “inform them of what we’re working on…and confirming with them that our assumptions [that they’d be supportive] were correct, given that it is an improved model for them and their clients.”
Restivo-Alessi said that the thing HarperCollins finds attractive about both Scribd and Oyster is that they “are willing to share data around their business performance … by working in partnership and working early with these companies, we’re going to be better at really selling content, in whatever form, because we’ll be there from the start.”
And HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray said in a statement that with Scribd, “HarperCollins authors will benefit from extended reach, increased discovery, and improved royalty streams.”
Scribd — like Oyster — is a bit vague on how authors are being paid. Payments currently “vary a bit by publisher,” Adler told me, and said Scribd “[plans] to eventually be public about the terms.” But HarperCollins CEO Murray told Publishers Lunch, “We have negotiated very hard, to the point where if the whole business went this way, we and our authors would be very pleased, because the economics are more favorable…[it’s] the exact opposite of the music industry’s subscriptions models. The revenues that go to our authors is up, somewhat significantly.”
In Oyster’s case, I’ve heard reports that publishers are paid by the percentage of a book that a user reads, with the publisher receiving the book’s full sale value after a reader has read 10 percent of it. It sounds as if Scribd is using a similar model, but the company hasn’t confirmed that.
Adler said that Scribd will eventually provide another revenue stream for authors and publishers: They’ll be able to embed books in their websites. Subscribers will be able to log into the embedded book and read it (and the publisher will get paid), while non-subscribers will see an excerpt and have the chance to sign up. “People could subscribe and read the books without going to any retail platform,” Adler said.
For Scribd, a move away from free
If you’ve used Scribd before now, it was likely to share free documents. For example, I’ve generally used it to embed court filings in GigaOM posts. In this way, Scribd was similar to companies like Docstoc and SlideShare.
Scribd will still have those capabilities, but Adler sees the company’s future in books and in its subscription product. Or, to put a more negative spin on it, she company has pivoted away from its original proposition. Two years ago, Scribd described itself in its press releases as “the largest social publishing and reading site in the world.” The company launched a read-it-later app, Float, in 2011 — but retired it about a year later.
Today, Scribd describes itself as “the world’s largest global digital library, featuring an ebook subscription service that gives readers access to millions of books and written works.”
And while the site sells individual pieces of content — including ebooks — Adler found that “we were better at driving subscribers to our website than selling by the piece. It’s just a better fit with our audience.”
Choosing one ebook subscription service? Here’s what you need to know
If you’re interested in a “Netflix for ebooks,” but aren’t sure what to choose, here are a few factors to think about.
Price: Scribd’s service is $8.99 per month, while Oyster’s is $9.95 per month. Oyster is in beta, invite-only and doesn’t offer a free trial, while Scribd offers a free one-month trial. I think a trial is key for a service like this: Ebook subscriptions are still an unproven proposition and you don’t know how much you’re going to use it until you actually try it.
Selection: Oyster says it has over 100,000 in-copyright titles. Scribd will not share an exact title count. The two companies have titles from many of the same publishers, but not all the same publishers, and while neither would give me a full list of the companies it’s working with, I think based on my browsing that Oyster works with more publishers overall: It has titles from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Open Road, for instance, while Scribd doesn’t. (To be more accurate, Scribd sells individual titles from both of those publishers but doesn’t include them in its subscription program.)
Platforms: Oyster is only on iPhone for now, though iPad is coming this fall. Scribd works on web, iOS, Android and Kindle Fire.
Design and Browsing: As I wrote previously, Oyster has a great design and is very easy to browse. Scribd falls a little short here, largely because of how titles are presented. The subscription program is lumped in with the rest of the site — there’s not a “Scribd Premium” app or something like that. This can make browsing a little confusing: When testing the program, my home screen on the site included both subscription books and Scribd press releases, because earlier in the day I’d searched Scribd for press releases:
I’d prefer a separate “Subscription” section where I’m only seeing books.
It’s easier to browse Oyster by genre, but I found Scribd’s actual search better.
Offline Reading: Both Scribd and Oyster let you download up to 10 books for offline reading.
This story was updated to note that eReatah, a competing ebook subscription service, includes titles from Simon & Schuster.