Liz Gannes

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Scribd Launches a Netflix-Like Subscription Service for Digital Books

Scribd, long known for being a YouTube for online documents, is today launching a book-subscription service.

The key details: It costs $8.99 per month, includes unlimited online access and an offline library of 20 books at a time, the only major publisher participating is HarperCollins, and the available books from HarperCollins will be those that are at least a year old.

Scribd CEO Trip Adler

Will that description, at that price, appeal to avid readers? Perhaps. Scribd notes that work from authors including Paulo Coelho, Neil Gaiman, Marian Keys and Elmore Leonard will be included. (Writers will be paid based on how much their work gets read, just like a book sale.)

And, after all, Netflix’s successful subscription-video service doesn’t have all the new hits, either.

But perhaps if people like renting books that much, they can invest in a free local library card.

“We don’t have all of the books in the world, but we have enough that it’s a really interesting product for $8.99,” said Scribd CEO Trip Adler in an interview about the launch.

“By having a book-subscription service, we can create an interesting experience around book discovery,” Adler said. “There’s no obligation to finish, so this really changes book discovery — you can sample, browse and read in parallel.”

But if book rentals are such a promising business, why are they happening now, and not earlier?

“Just because it hasn’t happened,” Adler replied. “Netflix and Spotify are pretty recent. Books tend to lag behind. They were last to go digital, and now the last to do subscription model.”

(To be fair, there are textbook-subscription models, including one from Amazon.)

Adler said Scribd has been working to persuade publishers to join up for the past year. The subscription service soft-launched in January with small publishers, and has been growing 60 percent per month since (but, granted, that was starting from nothing).

One obstacle to getting the deals done — because of increasing scrutiny on online book selling due to the Apple e-book antitrust trial — is that Adler had to be careful not to mention one publisher’s discussions to another, because it might risk the appearance of collusion.

So, why is Scribd doing this now? For whatever reason, it wants to branch into a new business and make a splash. Adler said he thought this was Scribd’s biggest product launch ever, since it first came out in 2007. He said this change in direction didn’t come because the company is struggling; it brings in tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue and is “quite profitable” from a combination of subscriptions, ads and content sales, according to Adler.

Subscription books are not a new and separate product; they are just another form of online text for Scribd’s website and various apps — albeit one that costs money. Adler said the latest milestones are that Scribd has 80 million monthly unique visitors and 40 million uploaded documents.

Scribd had previously done a major launch around a reader product called Float for magazines and newspapers, that competed with Flipboard and Zite. That effort was deemphasized, “because we wanted to go after a vertical people would pay for,” according to Adler.

“The nice thing about books is people really spend a lot of money on books,” he said.

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”