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Scribd is Culling Romance Titles From Its Catalog Because You’re Reading Too Damn Much

8545279556_c0b16a6999_bScribd has just run up against one of the known problems with subscription ebook services.

Mark Coker has announced over on the Smashwords blog that Scribd is thinning out its catalog. More specifically, Scribd is now pulling titles from what is probably its most read genre: romance.

Effective immediately, I estimate 80-90 percent Smashwords romance and erotica titles will be dropped by Scribd, including nearly all of our most popular romance titles.  Books priced at free are safe and will remain in their catalog.

Based on what I’ve been able to glean, the lower the price and the higher the word count, the better the odds the book will remain.  Few books priced $3.99 and above will remain.  Scribd is not publicly revealing the formulas for what stays and what goes, probably because much of this is still in flux. They’re cutting all publishers and distributors with the same blunt knife.

It’s ugly.  The problem for Scribd is that romance readers are heavy readers, and Scribd pays publishers retailer-level margins for the books.

Neither Mark nor I know for certain why Scribd is doing this, but I agree with Mark’s conclusion.

Update: The culling has also hit authors and publisher who distribute through Draft2Digital. An author broke the news on Twitter, and Bob Mayer confirmed the news and posted the email he got from D2D.

Romance readers are voracious readers, and Scribd and Oyster were paying what was effectively the wholesale price anytime a reader read more than 10% of a book. To be more exact, Mark revealed in late 2013 that authors were earning 60% of the retail price when that threshold was reached.

Obviously that was going to be unsustainable in the long run (this is why Amazon went with a pool of money for KDP Select). In fact, I’m surprised that Scribd waited so long.

Scribd has been been paying authors at that "hello bankruptcy" rate for the past 18 months, while in that time Scribd has raised capital at least once (possibly twice). I would have thought that the VCs would have pushed for this culling as a condition of their investment (I would have), but I guess they were satisfied at the time with Scribd’s growth and the rate at which was burning through money.

Scribd has released a statement, but it was basically a shorter version of the text Scribd was sending to publishers.

Here’s that email:

Dear Publisher,

As you know, in starting Scribd, we bore the majority of the risk when establishing a business model that paid publishers the same amount as the retail model for each book read by a Scribd subscriber. Now, nearly two years later, the Scribd catalog has grown from 100,000 titles to more than one million. We’re proud of the service we’ve built and we’re constantly working to expand the selection across genres to give our readers the broadest possible list of books for $8.99 per month.

We’ve grown to a point where we are beginning to adjust the proportion of titles across genres to ensure that we can continue to expand the overall size and variety of our service. We will be making some adjustments, particularly to romance, and as a result some previously available titles may no longer be available.

We look forward to continuing to grow subscribers, increase overall reading, and increase total publisher payouts in a way that works for everyone over the long term. We of course want to keep as many of your authors and titles on Scribd as we can, so we’d love to discuss our plans and how we can best work with you going forward.

Thank you for your business.

I don’t know yet just how many publishers have received this email but I suspect that the culling is hitting traditional romance publishers just as heavily as it is impacting indie authors.

Curiously, Scribd is not talking about culling other genres (the statement only mentions romance) at this time but I suspect that SF&F will be the next to go under the knife.

SF readers are nearly as voracious as romance readers, which means they are draining Scribd’s pocketbook almost as fast. Scribd is going to have to get that loss under control, and since they’ve decided to cull the catalog and not the subscriber base, well …

So tell me, do you think this is going to work?

I don’t. My feeling is that the smaller catalog will be less attractive, leading readers to decide to cancel their subscriptions. Yes, that will get rid of the heaviest readers but it will also drive away the lighter readers.

Scribd needs readers who only read a single book a month; they’re Scribd’s bread and butter. If they abandon the service, Scribd is doomed.

image by mikecogh

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William Ockham June 30, 2015 um 7:52 pm

No, SFF readers are nowhere near as voracious as romance readers. And there are far fewer of them.

This is despicable. I guess Scribd’s plan now is to hope that romance readers don’t notice and keep their subscriptions. Good luck with that. The average romance reader is a lot smarter than the average VC.

fjtorres June 30, 2015 um 8:41 pm

So much for the "scribd pays so much better than Amazon" meme.

Thing is, Amazon has a clear marketing focus with KU. And it more or less justifies the lower payout.

But Scribd? If they don’t make money off subscriptions, what do they exist for? Another generic epub store?

DaveMich July 1, 2015 um 1:29 pm

Scribd (and Oyster) is an 'idea' that got turned into a company, and now that they HAVE said company they can’t very well say "whoops, this doesn’t make that much sense." They are, as they say themselves, "trying to make it work." Good luck with that.

Mackay Bell July 1, 2015 um 7:53 pm

While Scribd originally started as a flat out piracy service, it and Oyster’s current business strategy was very simple: destroy (or at least weaken) Amazon’s book business.

The big publishers went in with them simply to try to knock Amazon down to size. Their pricing and payment structure never made sense, other than to simply get readers to stop buying stuff at Amazon and shift into subscriptions. I suspect much of the VC capital was raised with the assistance of the big publishers.

Once they succeeded in undercutting Amazon, they would either raise prices, or cut what they paid to writers (particularly indies). The success of Amazon’s KU, and a general lack of interest in subscription services for books, mean they are in for a long term battle they aren’t ready to fight. They were supposed to deliver a quick knock out blow. They failed.

Regardless, their true colors are now showing. Subscribers were supposed to be channeled to traditional publishers books, not indies. Subscribers weren’t supposed to read much. They had to stop the bleeding and obviously the limb they are going to cut off first was the indies.

But what they are doing now is probably not that much different than they would have done in success. Once they were making a lot of money, they still probably would have started limiting indy titles (they already tried to hide them). I wrote about this extensively back in January (warning about Smashwords too):

It’s amazing, given all the loose talk about Amazon wanting writers to price their books cheaply and work for free, even while providing great tools for writers to make money, Scribd is now cutting higher priced books first.

And they’ll keep in the free books where writers DON’T GET PAID at all. So, if you want to not get paid, stick with Scribd.

I suspect this was a model they were already thinking about in the future. Traditional publishers get paid full price on higher priced books. If Indies want access to their distribution service, they either have to charge much less, or offer their work for free. I think that’s a model big publishers would have liked for the long term.

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2015 um 11:09 am

Oyster’s current business strategy was very simple: destroy (or at least weaken) Amazon’s book business

I don’t think they had much of a plan beyond that, no. If they had they would have launched with Android apps and let you read in the browser.

Michael June 30, 2015 um 10:24 pm

Pretty ugly how it’s been implemented. One of my clients has remaining books 2, 3, 5, 8, and 9 of a nine book series. Another has only book 3 of a three book series. If Scribd’s goal is to get heavy romance readers to quit the service, they’ll certainly succeed.

Nate Hoffelder June 30, 2015 um 11:12 pm

That is ugly, yes.

Michael July 1, 2015 um 9:15 am

Might be unrelated, but someone I spoke to who had two Carina Press titles on there a week ago, now only has one. (I confirmed the same with Google cache.) She’s checking with CP to see whether they removed a book intentionally or Scribd did. The one removed was the more popular of the two, so it’s possible Scribd’s taking this cull farther than just Smashwords and Draft2Digital.

~B July 1, 2015 um 9:49 pm

It’s definitely more than SW and D2D. Several higher profile writers lists of available titles have dropped by a lot. Susan Mallery, Maggie Shayne & Kasey Michaels for example.

It seems a lot of the higher price, non-category, Harlequin titles are gone as well.

Nate Hoffelder July 1, 2015 um 10:06 pm

I checked the three authors you mentioned and the title count on Scribd is the same as what I found in the Wayback Machine. Can you name some titles that are gone?

~B July 1, 2015 um 11:04 pm

Can’t say for Maggie Shayne as that name was given to me by someone else. Someone else said Lisa Kleypas as well, but when I checked they still seem’d to have tons of her stuff so I don’t know.

For Kasey Michaels I can say that the following titles were there in the past few months but don’t show up for me in a search now…

A Gentleman By Any Other Name
The Dangerous Debutante
Beware Of Virtuous Women
A Most Unsuitable Groom
A Reckless Beauty
The Return Of The Prodigal
Becket’s Last Stand

For Susan Mallery (some don’t show, some show as not available)…

Almost Perfect
Finding Perfect
Only Mine
Only Yours
Summer Days
Only His
Summer Nights
All Summer Long
Just One Kiss

They had all of these titles (all from very popular series') earlier as I read them there. If they have them I can’t find them.

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2015 um 6:41 am

Thanks. This gives me a lot more to go on. I think I’m seeing what you’re seeing.

My problem before was that the Wayback machine gave me the basic page but not a compete author listing. And without a specific link to a book’s listing, it’s difficult to find it in the WbM.

Ebook Bargains UK July 1, 2015 um 2:47 am

Smashwords sees 80%-90% of its self-published romance and erotica titles removed from Scribd.

Is it coincidence that two other Smashwords outlets – OverDrive and Flipkart – refuse point blank to stock Smashwords self-published erotica titles?

The idea that Scribd is removing the very titles subscribers are subscribing for, in order to reduce payouts, when there are so many alternative ways to deal with the pay-out issue, seems too crazy to be true.

A quick glance at the romance sector on Scribd suggests trad pub romance titles are all still there. The Scribd letter may have begun "Dear Publisher," but is there any evidence that letter went to trad publishers, or is it just the distributors of self-published titles?

Why slash 90% of Smashwords romance titles and leave all other genres from Smashwords completely untouched? Are we to take it 90% of Smashwords romance and erotica titles are downloaded more than mysteries and thrillers?

This seems more like a way to remove all the self-published romance and erotica from the catalogue and then sift through and allow back what they deem is acceptable, much like WH Smith has done with self-published titles from Kobo.

Michael July 1, 2015 um 9:45 am

That’d make more sense if they removed all indie romance and erotica first.

If they’re trying to pull a WH Smith, they apparently have a very different definition of appropriate. I searched a number of names for erotica authors, and some of their most erotic work is still there, including that dealing with taboo subjects. The material isn’t miscategorized, so Scribd could’ve easily taken it down at the same time as the others.

Felix July 1, 2015 um 2:54 am

If they had half a brain, they’d keep those books on sale, with a fixed price — they do have that option already, for plenty of titles. Or they could ask voracious readers to pay more, as Mark Cohen suggests in his post. Culling them is suicidal, because it’s voracious readers who drive the business. But I guess old media thinking is hard to shake off…

Oh well, let’s enjoy Scribd for however longer it lasts, ’cause it can’t be very long now.

Greg Strandberg July 1, 2015 um 3:32 am

18 months. If I was an investor, I’d be irate.

Bill Smith July 1, 2015 um 7:00 am

I really don’t think this is despicable, it is simply math. (More notice would have been nice, though.)

I always assumed their current business model was unsustainable: You simply cannot pay out more than you take in and expect to stay in business. By paying "purchase" price, it was inevitable that high volume readers were going to drain their coffers. (And low volume readers I suspect will just buy outright from their retailer of choice.)

I suspect both Scribd and Oyster will have to go to a model very close to KU’s new model — there is a set pool paid out per "page" that readers read. It allows them to control their payouts relative to income.

If authors and publishers and distributors will go along with it is another matter.

fjtorres July 1, 2015 um 7:39 am

Well, Smashwords is clearly sweating bullets.
Coker’s full note says lower payouts are unacceptable and instead suggests higher subscription fees of $15 or $20.

It may be the culling is a ploy to get Indies to accept lower payouts, say 30%.
Which would put them in KU territory.

Felix July 1, 2015 um 10:06 am

Short-sighted business decisions are always "simply math". Just like austerity policies: spend less to reduce your deficit… never mind that your revenue will drop through the floor, sending you into a death spiral.

They could put a ceiling on how much you can read; they could add tiers; move to a different royalty model, perhaps inspired from radio. They could — as someone else suggested in these comments — just turn into yet another e-book store, and find some other gimmick to attract buyers. (Perhaps their old document hosting feature could be vowen into the new business?)

But giving people even fewer reasons to pay will only result in… gettting paid less. Good luck keeping it up.

Bill Smith July 1, 2015 um 7:06 am

Forgot to add: I don’t think Scribd has a business model beyond trying to get enough subscribers that they can sell out to a bigger player like Facebook, Yahoo, Google, etc. It seems like it is 1990s DotCom thinking all over again.

fjtorres July 1, 2015 um 7:33 am

Very likely.
Problem is, there are no deep pocket players willing to take on what is now looking like a loser business model.

I’m thinking the real driver here is the recent survey that showed that KU had almost 10x the subscribers of Scribd and Oyster combined.

Since Amazon itself isn’t talking, they could delude themselves into thinking that Amazon payouts were driven by a flood of shorts and the free month and that their retention wasn’t that much better than theirs.

That is looking like a misread. So they need to get their costs down and discrete sales up. They need to become an ebook store.

Maybe, if the price is right, buy Nook. 😉

Nate Hoffelder July 1, 2015 um 8:12 am

Maybe, if the price is right, buy Nook.

If you could buy both Scribd and Nook at fire sale prices, I would. between the two they would make a decent company.

fjtorres July 1, 2015 um 8:23 am

"No offer too low to be considered!" 😉

Nate Hoffelder July 1, 2015 um 8:28 am

I agree, I think Scribd’s only real strategic thinking was to grow big enough that they would be bought out.

Perhaps they were hoping Amazon would buy them?

Felipe Adan Lerma July 1, 2015 um 8:06 am

Wow, stunned.

Why not increase the 10% threshold to 50, or to 3/4 read?

Why not lower the payout %?

Why not increase the subscription rate to an even $10?

Why are traditional published titles still (evidently) all still available?

Ahhh, maybe that last question will eventually show what the strategy for Scribe and big publishers really is. And maybe Smashwords usefulness has run its course. I don’t know of course, but I’ll stay in KU for the same reasons I started with initially, it best suits my time constraints, ease of use, and of course customer reach.

Nate Hoffelder July 1, 2015 um 8:25 am

eBook Partnership has also been hit, but not BookBaby. I’m still waiting for more responses.

fjtorres July 1, 2015 um 12:54 pm

The question right now is whether they are only purging indies or if they’re purging tradpub romance, too.

If it is Indies only you get a different narrative that may not be genre driven per-se. After all, indies are very strong in romance so purging indie romance might be an attempt to shift the readers towards tradpub romance rather than trying to get rid of romance readers.

Of course, purging indies pretty much forces them to go to KU or forgo the subscription market altogether.

fjtorres July 1, 2015 um 12:59 pm

Speaking of KU; I’m hearing that the new payout scheme comes with improved analytics reporting. Specifically, the KU dashboard reports average pages read *per title*.

Word is the system is being hammered. 🙂

Maria (BearMountainBooks) July 1, 2015 um 6:50 pm

They probably can’t–they have contracts with the various sites and authors. In order to get trad publishers to sign up I would imagine they had to pay list. They could try to renegotiate the contracts, but no one is going to be too eager to do that other than SCRIBD.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) July 1, 2015 um 2:10 pm

I also used to be able to search their catalog without logging in. Now I have to either sign up for a free month or sign in (my sub has expired). That is less attractive to any reader. The point in joining is to find out if there are good books to read and I want to know that before I sign up.

I was really excited about SCRIBD at first, but I think they’ve made a number of missteps along the way. If they really are culling popular titles (from any genre) that is not good.

Moriah Jovan July 2, 2015 um 9:17 am

Yes, precisely. I got into one of my own free sample pieces (and I only did that to embed it on my site), and 3 pages in it forces me to sign in AND download the Scribd app before I can read further. (This is on the site, not on MY site where the doc is embedded.)

Not letting someone browse the catalog without signing up/in is in putting the stupid right up front.

I have hated Scribd from the first because they’ve always encouraged (or at least blind-eyed) piracy. Then I realized that law types use them to embed docs on their site so I found a use for them, but subscription reading was not one of them.

I don’t need a subscription to hit up the library.

Anne July 1, 2015 um 2:17 pm

If they are simply eliminating indie titles, I don’t see any reason to be concerned. If I wanted a catalog full of indies, I would join KU.

fjtorres July 1, 2015 um 3:03 pm

Well, considering that romance is heavy into indies, many of which are reverted tradpub classics, there are a lot of romance readers who will miss them and walk away because of it.

Purple lady July 1, 2015 um 4:57 pm

Maybe they should only pay 10% of wholesale price for reading 10% of the book. Or even pay nothing until 15% of the book is read. There’s no reason to pay the publisher for reading a sample of the book when samples are free everywhere else. They could pay varying amounts until 80% of the book is read, and make 80% the level at which full payment is reached.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) July 1, 2015 um 6:52 pm

They could–but contracts are already in place. They would have to renegotiate those contracts because they already agree to pay a certain way. These were negotiated before books were uploaded there.

Nate Hoffelder July 1, 2015 um 7:02 pm

And for all we know Scribd may have tried to renegotiate with no luck.

fjtorres July 1, 2015 um 7:11 pm

Coker seems adamant not to budge on per-read payouts.
So if the tradpubs won’t yield and Smashwords won’t either…

I’m thinking "bye-bye subscription business" time isn’t far off.
Or maybe "bye-bye scribd".

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2015 um 11:12 am

That was my read as well.

Purple lady July 1, 2015 um 7:42 pm

It just seems a bit ridiculous to pay full price for a 10% read. Maybe they had to pay that in the beginning to get the publishers in, but they should have allowed for renegotiation after a certain time.

Rebecca Allen July 1, 2015 um 8:42 pm

"I would have thought that the VCs would have pushed for this culling as a condition of their investment (I would have), but I guess they were satisfied at the time with Scribd’s growth and the rate at which was burning through money."

It takes everyone a really shocking amount of time to really grasp how many books romance readers go through. William is right when he says that SF readers are nowhere near as voracious as romance readers and there are far fewer of them. As someone who reads in both genres, I read easily 10X romance novels for every SF/F/paranormal/wtf I read, and that’s true of many other multi-genre readers as well. It is absolutely normal for romance readers to go through hundreds of books a year. The idea that you could just raise the percentage read to fix this problem is another misunderstanding. Romance readers require a book to be pretty fucking awful to abandon it in the middle; part of the issue is that they read so damn fast, and they tend to have a fair amount of time in the course of the day, every day, to read, so they _need_ volume. Given that VCs are overwhelmingly male, I’m betting very few VCs went into Scribd understanding the issues surrounding romance novel readership. VC investors have a horrible time getting any kind of numbers out of the companies they invest in (_after_ they have invested — you get jack before investing, just somebody talking fast and saying they are like someone else who has already attracted a ton of investment), so it took a while for them to notice where the bleeding was. Honestly, it may have taken _Scribd itself_ a while to figure out what the problem was.

The VCs probably did make this culling happen. It’s just hard to believe from outside that people are willing to hand millions or tens of millions of dollars over with so little transparency.

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2015 um 8:18 am

I think you’re right; not even Scribd saw this coming. If Scribd had realized romance readers were voracious they would not have signed that exclusive deal with Harlequin.

In retrospect that was a bad idea but everyone loved it at the time. Even I didn’t see the problem it would cause.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) July 2, 2015 um 8:48 am

The math is there if you talk about paying full price at trad prices (and some indie prices, for that matter). Any genre that is paying trad prices that average 7.99 or more == reader only has to read two books per month. Some romance titles average a little less, let’s say 5.99. Still two titles per month and you’re at a loss.

So while this may be the worst of the problem, I don’t think it solves anything and is probably just one step to stop the bleeding. Perhaps the real problem specific to romance is that they agree to give away 3 free months based on a Harlequin promo–it ran for ages (I blogged it because it could be combined with a giveaway I was doing at the time). Harlequin helped advertise it. So the first 3 months SCRIBD was paying out and getting nothing and pushing to some pretty voracious readers. And they HIGHLY encouraged people to sign up for a year plan. That’s 3 free months and another 12 they have to cover. Even if those signing up taper off and don’t keep reading the last few months (for whatever reason) it could easily be a loss simply due to the prices paid on the books read initially.

In long, I don’t think the "all you can read" for 9 dollars a month can work with any genre. It’s not that hard for a regular reader type to finish two books a month and unless the payout is at an average of maybe 3 dollars, how can they make money? Trad books don’t average 3 dollars in any genre.

It’s possible they just ended up with more romance readers than other genres because of the big promo they did–so that area is being culled first.

fjtorres July 2, 2015 um 9:54 am

No. It can’t work at any payout level close to tradpub royalty rates.
The failings are dual; not understanding reader tastes and habits is endemic to tradpub, but refusing to accept that subscription reads are rentals and not sales is a new one.
Insisting on measuring subscriptions by store yardsticks will collapse any service that tries to live up to those expectations either by publishers refusing to participate or by readers walk away.
What is amusing about Scribd’s move is they are implementing both themselves.
They are acting like failing retailers (cough*B&N*cough) and seeking to downsize into profitability. Even if it means less customers. And when you don’t have many customers to start with…

Moriah Jovan July 2, 2015 um 9:21 am

Color me shocked. /deadpan

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Lani July 20, 2015 um 8:27 pm

As a scribd subscriber, I have to say I’m truly disappointed in scribd. They are culling the books that made me a subscriber. Only a veracious reader would bother to pay a monthly fee for books. I would rather they go up a little on the fee than get rid of the books that made the service worth paying for.
I cancelled KU because the books available were so limited. It looks like I’ll be canceling Scribd as well.
They are basically shooting themselves in the foot.
I guess it’s back to the library, used bookstores and buying books from Kindle.

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