Scribd’s new e-book store: A sea change in publishing?

I was still recovering from Sunday’s 4.7 earthquake in LA when I heard the news that must have sent a shiver of apprehension through the publishing industry: scrbd, the publishing web site that gets around 60 million hits a day, began selling books online. Authors who upload their books will get an 80/20 split of the revenue from books sold on the site. That’s 80 per cent to us, folks.

NPR’s Marketplace pointed out that the two-year-old scribd has an advantage over other e-book publishers because its e-books can be read over many different types of reading devices, including laptops and “smart” phones. By contrast, Amazon’s e-books can be read only on a pricey Kindle.

We’ve been talking quite a bit on this blog about e-books, and debating their merits. I think that scribd’s move into selling books online, in a range of formats, at a price split that dramatically favors the author, has the potential to upend the publishing totem pole. The scribd platform could finally provide the grassroots publishing momentum that puts more revenue and power into the content creator’s hands, rather than the distributor’s.

In her farewell Newsweek column this week, Anna Quindlen described how, in the journalism field, young people have “created online outlets from the ground up…they are quite properly part of the action, not because we made room for them, but because they made room for themselves.”

Most novelists aren’t all that young, but scribd’s publishing model could provide the way for them to “make room” for themselves in the publishing paradigm. We’ll now be able to publish our own ebooks on a site that reaches sixty million potential readers. Sixty million!

But perhaps not all authors would consider taking hold of the reins of their publishing. I can imagine that even established authors might hesitate before taking the plunge into publishing on scribd. Would there still be a publishing contract, for example? Would uploaded works suffer from a stima from being “self-published”?

What do you think? Do you think the scribd book store has potential to change the publishing business paradigm?

Have you browsed through the new book store? Do you think it will become a morass of self-published drek as it develops, or is it going to become a juggernaut to be reckoned with?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Alexandra Sokoloff, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.


14 thoughts on “Scribd’s new e-book store: A sea change in publishing?

  1. I think the danger is that it will be overrun with the same people who post their books on their websites and then point to the 50-100 copies sold and say it validates them. I could be completely wrong, but I just don’t see a lot of professional authors going to scribd unless they go first, and set it up as a viable community and maintain it that way. If many wait to see how it turns out, I have a feeling the people normally preyed on by vanity-presses will post their works on scribd, saturate that market with less-than-traditionally-publishable books, and then no professional writer will go near it.

    But then, I could be completely wrong on all counts…

  2. You may very well be right, Jake. From a technology perspective, I do think that there is something to be reckoned with here. Scribd makes it so damned easy for you to not only upload, but to read, online works. There’s no overpriced Kindle that you have to buy, no iphone gizmo to deal with. If you downloaded a copy of Stephen King’s latest from scribd, you could read it on your laptop instantly. It just seems to me that there’s a potential that the technology might finally nudge the market at this point, in a direction that the big publishing players might not be expecting. It might mirror the evolution of downloadable music, including Napster, lawsuits by the record companies, et al–that era was a messy, painful one, to be sure. But at the end of the day, the music industry was changed for good, and the recording artists emerged on top of the heap. I do hope the same will be true for writers.

  3. Scribd has a way to go before they mimic the ease of use of Amazon for reading fiction. I checked out the site, and once you pick the Fiction category, there are no subcategories, so I couldn’t look specifically for thrillers, which is a huge barrier for me.

    I also looked at the novel Sower by Kemble Scott, which was referenced in the LA Times article. I could get to page 89 for free, and then it simply stops. I’ve tried several times to figure out how to buy the book, but I can find no link that lets me do that. Perhaps you have to register first before you see that link, but again that’s a huge user interface barrier. How would I know that? Why doesn’t it show me a link that says, “Want to read more? Register here and buy Sower for $2.”?

    In general, I think e-books are the future, and perhaps Scribd has the right formula, but they’re going to have to improve the user experience before they get me to come back.

  4. I’m worried about the same thing as Jake. There are so many people out there eager to publish – and the whole self publishing thing is already a minefield. As a reader I want to know there a book has legitimacy and editorial oversight so when I buy a book (whether in digital format or not) I know that I am buying something that has been through the vetting process. Saturation of a ebook store by less than stellar work does nobody any favors – and that’s my worry with scribd.

  5. Boyd, I browsed the site on its Day-One launch, and I agree with you that it has a long way to go. The offerings looked kind of odd and badly classified (or not classified at all). The site is still in a very raw state in terms of providing a smooth, reader-friendly experience. I’m really thinking mostly about scribd’s potential right now. As authors, I think we have a lot of self-interest in seeing to it that the experiment evolves successfully, and with less pain and suffering than happened in the music industry’s case. Clare and Jake, I totally share your fears about the risk of getting swamped by self-published, ill-edited, unreviewed crap flooding the market. But why is publishing so different than music? Why is it that the cream of the writing industry can’t rise to the top like music artists do, in a free and open environment like the one that scribd provides? For example, within a very short time, I would expect that scribd would post download ratings of works that have been paid for by an actual reader/customer. Those are “real” numbers that will indicate what the market is actually seeking, and what readers are willing to fork over money to read. Those are the numbers that I’ll be tracking, when they’re available. Meanwhile, I’ll be watching scribd with great interest.

  6. Put it this way:

    Under fiction, the top most downloaded seems to be from a recognizeable name. At over 31,000 reads, and priced at $3.50 (smart!), his 80% would be around $80,000. That’s more than my household income total.

    But, second on that page has over 6,000 reads, and is priced at $5.00. That 80% cut would be $27,000 or so. Still nothing to shake a stick at, and more than my take-home at least.

    By the time you get to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th top most downloaded, you’ve dropped from 80K to 2K. And that’s just the top few on the first page. Now I’m sure once you get the site’s bugs out and really get it established you might be better served, but I don’t know. You may wind up with 40 million people posting their stories at $9.95 (more than a paperback? not a good idea from a marketing standpoint) and getting maybe 100 or so downloads each. Will the top writers rise? Who knows, but I wonder if only the bestselling names will, and the midlisters will get lost among the drek from the self-publishing who dream of stardom and money (rather than a good story or a memorable character).

  7. Good point Kathryn – but will the cream rise to the top or will it drown in the vat of dren (or another mixed metaphor!) I’d like to think it will all work out for everyone’s best interests but still…hmmm…

  8. Even though I hate DRM. I found the lack of it on their site worrisome. What’s to prevent one person from downloading the PDF and blasting it all over the net, or reposting it as their own. I’m also concerned about the lack of any editorial or reader oversight. I hate wasting time on bad books, or even mediocre ones.

  9. I think what we may end up with is a matter of posting to the ebook sites, preferably with DRM protected material, just to ensure that we get it out and available before the pirates do.

    We must still maintain a focus on getting the paper out yet retain awareness that many may gravitate towards electonic versions as time proceeds. If they do, this is good, we were there before the pirate’s assault. If they don’t that is equally acceptable, we’ve also got paper in print.

    for some reason I thought that last bit with a Hindi accent…now I crave curry

  10. I agree Douglas that some kind of DRM (digital rights management) is essential. I think we’re just at the beginning of the potential of this unexploited technology; it will evolve and get refined in ways that we can’t begin to predict yet. For example, one might have “predicted” the need for a service like iTunes when music first started getting downloaded for free by kids years ago, causing all kinds of havoc and pushback from the music industry. But the music industry continued to resist the inevitable. And when iTunes finally emerged, it seemed to catch everyone by surprise.

  11. The thing about DRM, though, is it doesn’t work. Hasn’t yet, and probably won’t. Video game systems are hacked, computer games are cracked, all other software is cracked as well. If one guy can make a lock, another guy can break it. There are people out there who thrive on the challenge of it. So I wouldn’t count on DRM to save you from piracy (assuming that writers need protection from piracy anyway, which is debatable).

    Also, even though iTunes is successful, music is still incredibly easy to get for free on the internet. iTunes didn’t do anything to prevent it from happening further.

  12. Well taken points, John. My thought is that ultimately, we can’t stop the technology from changing the business model, so we have to get out front and explore every option to make those changes work in our favor. I just want to make sure I monitor the groups that are having that dialogue.

  13. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for taking on this topic. As the author whose new novel The Sower is starting all this, I thought I’d chime in.

    My goal here is pretty simple: find new readers. The world is changing and people are experiencing literature in different ways. 86% of teens in Japan are reading novels…on their cell phones!

    And the latest numbers on Kindle e-book editions are very impressive. 35% when a Kindle version is available.

    We should look for readers wherever we can find them. I think we should be especially concerned about reaching out to twentysomething readers and men, two groups that have taken to Scribd in huge numbers (but you don’t see enough of in bookstores). Let’s rekindle their interest in reading books, and if that means my novel is shrunk to fit a cell phone screen, that’s fine with me.

    Research shows that people who consume literature electronically are far more likely to go into a store and buy a book.

    The Scribd model is different. The books can be read on any computer and mobile device. You don’t need a special gadget.

    My favorite way: on a laptop, reading the book “live” on Scribd, in full screen book view mode, with my browser also full screen. You see two pages at a time like a print book, and an animation recreates a page turn. The first time I saw this, I thought, “Wow. Now I understand.”

    Check it out.

    I’ve put up 89 pages in a free preview. Yes, that’s more than normal. Imagine if someone stood in a store and read 89 pages?! But, like I said, we’re trying something new.

    And I priced this first edition at just $2. There’s a recession on, remember? Perhaps at that price it’s less likely someone will try to hack the file or steal copies.

    I have to keep reminding myself that it’s only been hours since this whole thing launched. It’s still in beta mode, so if you experience any snags or have suggestions for improvements, I’m happy to pass them along. Drop me a note at

    Thanks for the forum!

  14. Great to see you at the Kill Zone, Kemble! Your bold experiment certainly started a fascinating debate. Thanks for the update, and please keep us posted!

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