eBook subscription is set to be one of the key trends of this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, as a critical mass of providers enter the market of providing access to eBooks as a service. Since we first reported on the drive towards creating a 'Netflix for Books' in early 2013, the range of subscription providers has grown significantly and now faces competition from Amazon, whose Kindle Unlimited service already enjoys considerable leverage just two months after its US launch thanks to the retailer's dominance over the eBook market.
Scribd was one of the first entrants to the eBook subscription market and currently the only service to be available in the UK and US. Andrew Weinstein, Scribd's VP of Content Acquisition will join us to discuss trends in mobile reading in our Great Debate panel on the Publishing Perspectives Stage on Wednesday 8 October. Ahead of this event we caught up with Andrew for the latest in our series of What is a publisher now? interviews with the people reshaping the publishing industry.
PT: Imagine we’re stuck in an elevator together. Tell us more about who you are and what you do?
AW: A 15-year publishing veteran, with entrepreneurial (2-startups) and big company experience and a passion for helping the publishing industry manage the transition from physical to digital distribution. I understand the power of leveraging new technologies like digital delivery and print on demand and pursuing new business models, sales channels, and geographies to monetize content.
PT: Scribd is unusual among eBook standalone subscription services in being a relatively mature business before it took the decision to go into providing access to books. Why did it decide to diversify into the book business, and why a subscription instead of a retail model?
AW: Scribd initially gained recognition and critical mass as a publishing platform, allowing anyone, anywhere to upload their works to reach an audience of millions of readers worldwide. From there, we began working with publishers as SEO experts for books and a hosting and distribution platform for 1st chapters. While we launched an ebook store, it never reached critical mass. We’ve always been focused on long-form written works so in 2013, we took the next step and launched the subscription-based portion of the service that readers know and love today. The subscription business has been very successful and well adopted. Its clear that it’s a model readers love and publishers and authors are increasingly embracing.
PT: There’s been a lot of discussion about the rise of the ‘sharing economy’. From Airbnb to Uber, a category of businesses has arisen that sells consumers access to good and services rather than those services themselves. Do you see Scribd as being a part of the 'sharing economy', and what’s the advantage to renting instead of owning your books?
AW: Beyond what’s been coined as the “sharing economy”, we’re seeing a larger shift in mindsets, people want instant and constant access to goods and services – cars, vacation homes, and yes, books.
Subscribing to books gives readers the opportunity to discover and read more books for the same price as purchasing just one physical book. Scribd offer the same level of access as ownership for as long as a reader is subscribing. Ownership has an advantage over subscriptions if you have a limited, fixed number of books you want to read and you know you will read the book over and over again…it assumes that technology does not change and the source of the ebooks is always available. Given that the latter two points have been issues, ownership does not guarantee access.
PT: Scribd wouldn’t be possible without developments in smartphones and tablets. Because your members access content on different devices and in a different manner to other digital reading services, many of which see much of their use through dedicated e-reading devices, do they read differently? Have you noticed anything interesting or unusual about the way people read on a mobile as opposed to a print book or e-reader?
AW: In general, we’ve seen that most readers actually engage with more books through our platform than they would with print books. This is likely do to that freedom of browsing – there’s no buyers remorse so readers and simply reading more.
With regards to different devices, the majority of our growth is taking place on out various apps – iOS, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire and Nook tablets – versus original web browser, though we do see healthy traffic there as well. And across mobile devices, reading time is pretty consistent. Whether someone is reading on a mobile phone or a tablet, the average reading session is about 45 minutes.
PT: And how would you characterise a Scribd reader?
AW: Given our extensive catalog, we see readers from all ends of the spectrum – we have readers that come specifically for reference and business content, others that want to read and reread the classics and everything in-between.
Earlier this month we released this infographic that shows we have readers on all seven continents – and collectively, they’ve read 1 billion pages!
We’ve also seen that readers prefer different genres at different times of the day. For example, many readers are enjoying fiction during the morning commute and fiction late at night. We’ve also seen a spike in children’s books in the early afternoon when the kids are home from school.
PT: Following Amazon’s entry into the subscription market with Kindle Unlimited in July this year, what do you think the challenges facing these services will be? Is it a signal that the market for eBook subscription will grow, or will it become increasingly competitive?
AW: The entry of Kindle Unlimited does not change anything for Scribd. We’re still committed to providing the best service for our readers, publishers and authors. And that means continuing to grow our catalog and roll out new features and platforms.
At the end of the day, Amazon’s entrance in the market was not a surprise, but rather a validation of the business model we built.
PT: One way that Scribd seems to be differentiating itself is through reference books. This is an interesting use case, in that the service offers consumers a way to access authoritative information (or at least more authoritative than the web) without needing to buy a work that might be quickly outdated. Do you see this as a future area of growth for Scribd?
AW: Reference content is certainly an area where we’re seeing significant growth. Over the past few months, we’ve added everything from Lonely Planet travel guides to National Geographic and Wiley’s For Dummies series.
Readers engage with this sort of content in a very different way in that its not necessarily meant to be read start to finish like a novel. For that reason, it’s a very compelling vertical for subscription readers.
PT: Another way you’re responding to the changing landscape is through redesigning your apps and websites. What are you doing to improve the User Experience for a service that for a new user can offer an overwhelming array of titles?
AW: One of our greatest endeavors this year was the completely redesigned browse experience. We want to provide our readers with the most robust catalog possible, but diving into a sea of 500,000 books can be overwhelming, that’s why we want to help each and every reader find their next book. Our new browse experience brings the familiar elements of browsing a neighborhood bookstore into the digital realm, from personalized staff picks, to shelves for every category and special interest niche imaginable.
PT: You also recently introduced curated selections of books on top of algorithmically selected titles. Was this a recognition that human intervention is a key part of the experience of selecting books?
AW: Yes, we think our unique combination of computer algorithms and editorial recommendations will change the way all readers browse and discover content.
PT: In 15 words or fewer, what is a publisher now?
AW: Advisor (editorial), Curator (worth publishing), Distributor, and Amplifier of creative, written-word content