A few months with Scribd

4 minute read

While I’m a bit late to the game, I’ve spent the last 3 months exploring the subscription model for ebooks. As you may have heard, the inventor of the concept - Oyster - shut down awhile back (Amazon has Kindle Unlimited now). I’d given up on Oyster previously because they never had the books I wanted to read. I’ve previously suggested I think the end is coming for the subscription model, and offered a few ideas for how to save it.

Scribd has become the “last man standing” in terms of a standalone ebooks subscription service. I decided to live with it for 3 months to see how compelling I found it. Here’s my experiences and thoughts.

  • The Reader is very nice.
  • The Catalog isn’t deep enough — it’s “OK” but not compelling.
  • Some interesting browsing and categorization
  • Onboarding is only so-so.
  • Personalization is cumbersome, and the recommendations are lacking (but I did bring me a few winners.
  • No Community.
  • $10 a month isn’t quite worth it.

Before diving into details, here’s the punchline: it’s a good service, I read some good books and enjoyed it, but I don’t plan on keeping my subscription going, as the service stands today.

The Catalog

The first and biggest challenge of the subscription model is the depth of catalog - do they have the books I want to read? Because this model isn’t as profitable for the publishers, they limit which books are available.

By virtue of my book discovery engine (The Hawaii Project), I have a TBR (To Be Read) list as long as your arm. I’m an eclectic reader - my TBR list is a mix of espionage thrillers, historical fiction, literary fiction, a few bestsellers and a smattering of non-fiction - bios, arts books and the like. My list is biased towards more recent books, but contains many classics and older books that are waiting for their turn.

So, how does Scribd fare against my TBR list? An analysis showed that 19% of my TBR list was in there — mostly the lesser-desired books, and older books. The more obscure the book, the more likely Scribd had it. I’ve been dying to read the new bio of John Le Carre, All The Light We Cannot See (one of 2015’s most highly regarded books), and A Crown for Cold Silver, a highly regarded 2015 Fantasy novel. Struck out all around, and on most of the books at the top of my list. The books Scribd were sort of my personal “back catalog” - books I wanted to read, but not bad enough to buy just yet. There were some goodies in there.

Over the course of the 3 months, I read from my TBR list - A Sport and a Pastime, the first classic from James Salter I’d been meaning to read for some time. Whale Road, a Viking novel. Solo, a James Bond novel by an author I love, William Boyd. A truly great book, A Death in Veracruz, a translation of a book by Héctor Aguilar Camín about the Mexican oil wars. Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

While I think Scribd’s discovery methods aren’t that great, it did manage to unearth a few treasures. I thought I knew every book Bernard Cornwell has written, but Scribd brought me Scoundrel, a sailing novel, which was good fun and unknown to me. And The Far Arena, a truly wonderful Roman gladiator time travel novel. And a few others. So, I read 10 books, for the cost of $30 (3 months of Scribd). Not bad, although I could have bought those books used for about the same price, and wouldn’t have bought them new (or maybe at all) as they weren’t at the top of my list.

Finally, they had a pretty deep Audiobook section - many of the books they did not have in written form, were available in Audiobook form, so if you’re into audio books you might have better luck.

The Experience

I found Scribd’s reader to be very nice. Clean, minimalist and easy to use. I wish I didn’t need another reader (competing with Kindle, iBooks, etc), but it’s easy to use.

Browsing for books is nice, from a user interface perspective (although I think The Hawaii Project’s is better :)). In addition to the usual categories like Literature and Fiction, Biography and the like, they have some interesting sub-genres, Netflix-like, for example, “Set in San Francisco”, “Identity Crisis”, “Muskets & Magic”, “Nordic Noir”, beyond the rather formulaic categories one finds on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. But the books shown in the major categories aren’t the ones you’re looking for, because of the catalog issues.

I found the onboarding process, and the personalization and customization, to be awkward. Since so many of the expected books are missing from Scribd, it’s essential for them to bring me great personalized recommendations, and to make it easy for me. It wasn’t. It was quite awkward to quickly tell them about the many books I’ve read recently, and as a result I’d already read most of the books they recommended - and there was no quick way to tell them that or get them to stop recommending it. A simple checkmark on each book cover would have done it.

Last but not least, there’s no community to speak of on Scribd. I get that it’s a reading platform, not a social network, but in order to survive with a limited catalog they need something to make it sticky. Reddit’s book community is vibrant and millions-strong. Goodreads is the defacto book community and that’s what keeps it going. Scribd needs something besides just a reader to keep going.