Scribd Is Like Netflix for eBooks; and Just as Sucky

05/22/2014

The Netflix model of “all you can consume” for a monthly fee is gaining traction. Subscription music is slowly picking up steam, and books are the latest type of media to appear in subscription services. I read a lot, and I would very much like to use a service where I can read a lot, for a single monthly fee.

Enter Scribd. Initially designed as a platform to distribute academic papers, Scribd quickly evolved into a subscription platform for books in general. You can read on the web, or on tablets and smartphones. For $8.99 a month, you can choose from some 400,000 books, they say, with recent additions of 10,000 books from Simon & Schuster, and longer-standing titles from Harper Collins.

The problem is, Scribd is just as crappy as Netflix. There are two reasons for this, one of which affects everyone, and another that affects people outside the US (like me).

First, it’s full of self-published crap. Just as Netflix has tons of straight-to-digital movies, Scribd has lots of content that comes from wishful authors looking for readers. It’s hard to sort this content from the better books, making it a tough slog to find what you want. I wonder how many of the 400,000 titles are not self-published; and how many are even books. A lot of Scribd content is “documents,” such as catalogs (seriously), court filings, instruction manuals, and more.

Second, Scribd simply lies about the numbers. Before signing up, I saw that the service has 400,000 books. So I signed up for a free one-month trial, and Scribd lied to me, sending me an email that said I had access to more than 400,000 books.

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I found that seemingly 90% of them – at least of the good books – are unavailable in my country. Scribd even lets you add books to your library if you can’t read them, making it very confusing. I went through and selected a handful of books I wanted to read, not seeing that many were not available to me (so why show them to me?), then, when I went to start reading on my iPhone, I found that many of them were unavailable.

I understand the problems with licensing content like this in different countries. But Scribd needs to be more straightforward. They presented me with numbers, which simply aren’t true for me. This is misleading advertising.

For example, Scrib recently announced that they added “More than 10,000 titles from Simon & Schuster’s celebrated catalog of books,” and invited me to browse them.

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When I browsed, here’s what I saw:

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Out of 34 books they showed me on this page, only four were available to read in my country, and one (The Great Gatsby) is in the public domain. I wonder how many of those 10,000 books were available to me. Not counting the public domain titles, I’d guess about 1,000, based on the initial page they presented me.

Oh, and their help? I wanted to find out more about books I can and can’t read, so I clicked through to a help topic about that issue. Here’s what I saw:

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Scribd may be fine if you’re in the US, though you’ll have to slog through all the self-published dreck. But if you’re not in the US, they simply lie to you, and most books are not available. (Note that the availability will depend on which country you’re in; my guess is that my country, the UK, has more books available than others, but this is just a guess.)

Another company, Oyster, offers a similar service, and at least they don’t pretend to be able to offer a decent selection outside the US; they don’t offer subscriptions outside the US at all.

I’m looking forward to the day when companies like this don’t lie about their content, and the day – most likely far away – when content doesn’t have national boundaries. If you’re in the US, you might want to try it out. But if not, don’t waste your time.

Update: Scribd support got back to me and, saying it wasn’t easy to find, told me that, in the UK, they have more than 277,000 books available. It’s fair to say that the unavailable books are those from the bigger publishers, who are more likely to limit access to books because of licensing issues. I would love to know how many books are available from major publishers; for example, of the 10,000 Simon & Schuster books they’ve just added, how many are available in the UK. From the page I saw (the last screenshot above), only 10% of them are available to me. So are there about 1,000 books from that publisher available in the UK?