HarperCollins Fattens Scribd’s E-Book Subscription Catalog

Scribd announced Tuesday that HarperCollins has become the first major publisher to join its monthly e-book subscription service.

Scribd launched the e-book service earlier this year with a handful of smaller publishers including RosettaBooks and Sourcebooks. Since then, it has grown more than 60 percent, according to Scribd, and it will have an even larger selection of books now that HarperCollins is on board.

The service allows users unlimited access to Scribd’s library of more than 25 million books and documents, as well as the majority of the HarperCollins backlist catalog, for US$8.99 per month. Users can purchase individual e-books from HarperCollins’ full catalog — including the newer titles — through Scribd’s retail platform.

The e-books and documents will be accessible to users of iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Kindle Fires and Nook tablets.

Going Subscription

Scribd is not the first digital platform to experiment with a subscription or lending service for books as traditional publishers, libraries and booksellers try to come up with new ways to appeal to e-reading consumers.

“The book industry desperately needs a new business model,” Ira Brodsky, founder of Datacomm Research, told the E-Commerce Times.

Oyster Books recently debuted a $9.95-per-month service that gives iPhone and iPod touch users access to more than 100,000 books. Another app, eReatah, which is available in beta, offers tiered subscriptions starting at $14.99 monthly that give users access to a select number of titles per month.

Amazon also has been working on building out its lending services. Kindle users with an Amazon Prime account can borrow more than 350,000 books for free. More than 11,000 public libraries in the U.S. allow Kindle users to borrow books via their e-reader or Kindle app.

“Subscription services always beat pay-per-use services,” James McQuivey, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, told the E-Commerce Times. “That’s why newspapers, magazines and cable TV have all been sold via subscription in the past. But add the convenience of a digital subscription model, and it leads to the breakaway success of Netflix. Scribd hopes for the same thing here.”

Beating the Big Guys

It could be tough to find the same success Netflix did, though, said Brodsky, since Netflix’s offerings — which include recently released movies and TV shows that are difficult to legally stream elsewhere, as well as critically acclaimed original content — are much more compelling.

“This isn’t a Netflix for e-books because it doesn’t include newer books,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “The Web already provides global e-book distribution. HarperCollins is trying to generate a little extra revenue for older books that otherwise aren’t selling, and Scribd is trying to expand its portfolio a little.”

Still, Scribd has the right approach in courting HarperCollins, which could help it win partnerships with a few of the other major publishing players, said McQuivey.

“Scribd has made the deal very sweet for publishers, giving them access to the data and even direct access to the people who read their books,” he noted. “This is unprecedented and was really necessary to convince a publisher to risk devaluing individual book prices with a subscription model.

“It’s important that it’s not Amazon or even Barnes & Noble,” McQuivey continued, “because empowering a large partner who already has significant influence in the business would be risky — but trying this out with Scribd carries mostly upside potential with very little risk.”

It’s too soon to tell how successful the venture will be, he said. If nothing else, the deal between Scribd and HarperCollins could provide valuable insight into what kind of business model is going to work best for publishers, digital platforms and consumers in the book industry going forward.

“This is a potential watershed moment in how publishers interact with readers,” said McQuivey, “not just because subscription models are so powerful in digital, but because access to the reader is one thing publishers have never had before.”

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