About a year ago, I tried the free trial offered by eBook subscription service Scribd. The number and variety of titles were astonishing, and there were books from both major publishers and indie publishers. Big publishers that refused to make books lendable on Amazon or to add their books to Amazon’s Prime Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited joined Scribd. The books waiting in my library ranged from Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong (still in hardback then) to new adult titles to lots of recent young adult titles to a textbook on homicide by Robert Ressler, and more. And the romances? Everything from major romance authors such as Julia Quinn to Julie Garwood to Jude Deveraux and Johanna Lindsey. Avon titles! Pride and Prejudice continuations! Carla Kelly books! I couldn’t wait to dive in.
Then I found out that I hated reading in the Scribd app, and I wasn’t crazy about reading on their website. Yup. With the advances in eBook readers, if I wanted to read all those great books, I’d have to read using an app. Not on my Kindle or Nook. Whoops. I hard a hard time fitting my tablet in my purse. It was like one of those terrible dreams where I’m in a great bookstore but can’t find my purse. So I canceled my Scribd subscription. Scribd probably loved me. While on the program, I read a couple of chapters from a young adult romance I’d been interested (only to get bored with it), and some of the Lance Armstrong book. Even with the free months, they still made money from me because I decided to keep my subscription going for a little longer.
I tried Kindle Unlimited and stayed there for a little longer simply because I could read the books on my Kindle. Sure, they had fewer books from big publishers, but I could read them on my Kindle. In the end, I eventually quit KU because I could never find time to read the novels I downloaded — the novels I bought came first. I ended up using KU to read shorter works, such as tiny books about reference topics that I didn’t want to pay $4.99 and up to read. Only to learn that anybody can pretend to be an expert, and one company was even “publishing” mental health pamphlets put out for free by the Australian government. Oh, well. At least those articles were accurate and well-researched. Also, KU isn’t without controversy because of the lower pay scale for authors. Authors have learned they make more money from shorter works, and less money from shorter ones, which is why many authors have turned to serializing longer books. Amazon is also quick to change payment terms. For example, Amazon recently announced that they would now pay authors by pages read rather than books read. This might mean that longer books will become more profitable than shorter works for KU authors.
With so many big name authors avoiding Kindle Unlimited, many romance fans prefer Scribd, however. After I left, Scribd added even more books, particularly romance. More Johanna Lindsey, and lots and lots of Harlequin titles. Scribd also added indie romance titles, particularly Smashwords titles — those can range from new romances and erotica, to previously published books put back in print by their authors. These fans joined because Scribd had no many authors. (You think they joined to read Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives? No, me neither.)
However, this week, fans noticed that some romance titles were disappearing. Some? Estimates say the 30,000 romance titles on Scribd could have dropped to 8,000! At first, fans thought only indie titles (such as titles from Smashwords and Draft2digital) were being removed. So while many fans were upset, others thought this would help make titles from large publishers easier to find. Then again, what about those Harlequin books some fans could no longer find? A temporary glitch? Or something else? I learned something was wrong with Scribd on Twitter before I learned anything from Scribd. Fans and writers alike were tweeting about the romance purge, and readers were already vowing to leave Scribd. Romance readers hate feeling unloved.
Blog posts came, too. On Tuesday, Mark Coker, founder of the Smashwords publishing service, announced that Scribd had yanked a huge number of SmashWords romance and erotica titles from the catalog. Coker estimated that as much as 80-90% of the Smashwords romance and erotica books were culled from Scribd’s library. He also realized that the most popular titles would be cut because they were costing Scribd more. According to Coker, “Bottom line, romance readers – readers we love dearly at Smashwords – are reading Scribd out of house and home. Scribd’s business model, as it’s set up now, simply can’t sustain the high readership of romance readers. They’re not facing the same problem with readers of other genres.”
Author Bob Mayer also got a similar notice because some of his Draft2digital titles are on Scribd. Mayer sees it as a sign that subscription services might be in trouble. If a genre gets “too many borrows for the subscription price,” the service still has to pay those authors. So what is the solution? Removing titles? Paying authors less? These solutions will not make anyone happy. As Mayer, says, “Bottom line: romance readers are not particularly welcome at Scribd. You read too much. Aint that a hell of thing to say?” The Digital Reader blog put it succinctly as well: Scribd is Culling Romance Titles From Its Catalog Because You’re Reading Too Damn Much. On Thursday, the Digital Reader blog also confirmed that the purge wasn’t affecting just indie titles. As some readers feared, Harlequin titles were being pulled as well.
Maybe, like many other companies, Scribd underestimated romance readers. Maybe they told themselves “They won’t notice the missing titles…” Whoops again. Maybe Scribd thinks they joined to read true crime, or that they joined to read romance but will stay to read The Return of the Sorcerer: The Best of Clark Ashton Smith or The Color of Her Panties by Piers Anthony. Like me, some will read “all of the above.” But most romance fans won’t be happy with fewer romance titles. For a company often called “Netflix for Books,” it seems Scribd doesn’t know much about readers, particularly romance fans. Or maybe they didn’t pay attention when people told them “Romance fans are voracious readers.” Didn’t they research the romance field before marketing to them? Then again, maybe not. Some of the books Scribd categorizes as romance… simply aren’t. When you check out the Romance category on Scribd, one of the featured titles is a Sidney Sheldon book. Uhm, what? That book comes under the Cheaters category. Yeah, we all know how popular that category is with romance fans. When you view all romances, the first two books that come up are a Joanna Trollope novel and even a children’s book (The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman). Vying for space with authors such as Christine Feehan and Lisa Kleypas are “romance” authors Alexandre Dumas, Mercedes Lackey, the Marquis de Sade, Henning Mankell, and Virginia Woolf. Right. Whenever I want a pick-me-up, I pick up a Wallender mystery. Or Virginia Woolf. Not to mention Damage by Josephine Hart. So maybe the people running Scribd don’t know romance at all.
That’s no surprise to me. They might not know books, either, Last year, Scribd kept sending me DMCA takedown notices for public domain books I was hosting on their site. Is it so hard to figure out that a Charles Dickens novel is no longer copyrighted? Once, trying to clear up a possible “copyright violation,” they asked me if I was the author of The Kama Sutra by Vātsyāyana. I wish! I felt like replying, “Yes! I am over 1800 years old, and boy do you ever owe me some back royalties!”
If Scribd knows as much about romance as they do about public domain works, and the Kama Sutra, then both Scribd and romance fans and authors who depend on it are in trouble. Let’s hope they have learned better. The CEO of Scribd did respond to the concerns. They updated their blog on Tuesday to reassure romance fans that Scribd still loves romance and still has lots of romance books on the site. They are looking into other solutions, such as rotating the romance titles, and possibly even negotiating new terms with publishers. Of course, one solution might have involved, you know, telling the customers what was going to happen before pulling the titles. Maybe learning more about the romance community before adding that many titles. Doing the math first.
So what can Scribd do, besides learning that Virginia Woolf is not a romance writer, and figuring out that romance fans deserve a company that won’t take their money and then change the rules suddenly. Lots of ideas have been coming out. Change the amount publishers and authors are being paid. Offer more than one subscription plan, so that people who read a lot have to pay more. Keep romance titles (and other popular genres) in rotation, so that some titles are removed for a while. Not all of these ideas are popular, of course. Changing fees will drive off readers, and changing pay rates will drive off publishers and authors. Still, there must be something that can work.
I’m willing to offer some more ideas to Scribd and I won’t charge a monthly subscription fee. Learn what romance is, and what it isn’t, so that your search results don’t annoy potential customers.. Find out what categories fans like. (Cheaters? Really?) Visit sites like All About Romance, talk to romance readers, ask them what they think of your site. For Pete’s sake, remember that romance readers are your customers, not voracious creatures devouring books like a bookworm version of Sharknado.