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Scribd is Putting Harlequin Titles on the Same Chopping Block as Indie Titles

8385443316_2bb287099b_bWhen news broke on Tuesday that Scribd was cutting romance titles from its catalog, all the stories focused on indie published titles from either Smashwords or Draft2Digital but the activity was not limited to just those two distributors.

At least one other ebook distributor was impacted, and Scribd has confirmed today what readers have been saying for a couple days now and what my own eyes saw in the Scribd catalog: that Harlequin, the world’s largest romance publisher, is feeling the pain as well.

eBook Partnership, a UK-based ebook distributor, confirmed that they too had received a notice from Scribd. They were unable to share specifics, but did note that they had only started to upload to Scribd fairly recently. Given that Scribd is cutting the more popular titles there is every chance that titles distributed through eBook Partnership might not have been in Scribd’s catalog for long enough to draw attention.

Similarly, BookBaby does not expect to have any titles pulled from Scribd’s catalog due to the simple fact that this ebook distributor doesn’t distribute romance titles to Scribd.

I was told that Bookbaby’s deal with Scribd initially excluded romance and erotica titles. That later changed, but those two genres were never a significant part of BookBaby’s catalog. Furthermore, BookBaby’s system is set up to restrict Scribd if the client selected erotica as a sub-genre, so it’s unlikely this distributor will feel the pinch.

Harlequin, on the other hand, is going to notice. Scribd has confirmed that titles from Harlequin, as well other traditional publishers had been removed from the Scribd catalog. This detail had been left unsaid earlier this week, but now I have been told that the "adjustments to the romance catalog are being handled identically with all publishers who provide us with romance content".

Harlequin had signed a deal with Scribd last October to give Scribd an exclusive on 15,000 titles from Harlequin’s backlist. That exclusive had likely expired by April when Harlequin signed a deal with Playster, but the 15,000 titles still made up a huge chunk of Scridb’s romance catalog.

According to user reports, Scribd’s romance catalog had 30,000 titles before the cull. That same user reported that the romance catalog now boasts 8,000 titles.

Edit: It’s been made clear that the 30,000 refers contemporary romance, not the entire genre. But if we apply it across the genre then this is a huge reduction.

I was a little surprised by that detail; like many I was under the impression that romance titles made up a major chunk of the 300 thousand plus titles in the Smashwords catalog, and that most of the romance titles had made their way to Scribd.

I have asked Scribd to confirm this detail, but they would only go so far as to say that "we have not specified the amount of titles".

Edit: Okay, now Scribd is willing to say that the figure is not accurate. Gee, thanks, guys.

While we won’t know the true scale of the cull until Scribd shares those figures, I do think we can point to the cause.

It would have to be that deal with Harlequin, and the subsequent promotion.

Scribd had been promoting its subscription ebook service with a 3-month free trial. It was widely available and heavily promoted by both Scribd and Harlequin. One author I know had even mentioned it in one of her giveaways.

Harlequin and Scribd were both encouraging voracious romance readers to read as much as they want for 3 months and not pay a dime.

In retrospect that was a terrible idea, but I would think that Harlequin at least should have foreseen the problems this would cause.

But would they care, and would they speak out against the idea?

No one is talking about that deal (not to the press, anyway) so there’s no way to know for sure. But it is clear from this week’s events that everyone is aware of the limitations of the subscription ebook model now.

As I and many others pointed out when Scribd and Oyster launched in late 2013, a subscription plan can’t afford to pay book publishers at the same rate retailers pay. This week has shown that the service only works until it is actually used as intended, at which point the company behind starts bleeding profusely.

The readers who would get the most value out of a subscription ebook service are also the ones who drove Scribd to cut their catalog this week. And to be clear, that was just a stopgap measure and not a true solution; those readers are still subscribed to Scribd (and to a lesser degree, Oyster) and so the problem is merely abated but not resolved.

In the long run the only solutions may be to either switch to payment terms similar to Kindle Unlimited or drop the unlimited aspects of certain Netflix-style ebook services.

TotalBoox, for example, is has developed a service where pay for what you read, but based on their recent press releases is having trouble drawing the attention of consumers or publishers. (A similar service proved unworkable when PaperC tried it a couple years ago.)

Similarly, Blloon launched with the goal of offering a much more limited service with restrictions on how much a subscriber can read in a given month.

Blloon is still in beta in the UK, but unfortunately it has gone down the same path as Scribd and Oyster. Blloon is now being pitched as an all you can read service with 700,000 titles and a cost of  £7.99 per month. That is no more a workable model than the service Scribd and Oyster offer, and I expect Blloon will suffer the same fate.

image  by docoverachiever

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KatieF July 2, 2015 um 3:16 pm

I saw the original tweet with the 30,000 to 8,000 numbers–that was just for contemporary romance, not all romance titles.

Nate Hoffelder July 2, 2015 um 3:29 pm

Thank you for the context. I looked but could not find that detail.

fjtorres July 2, 2015 um 3:19 pm

The key problem is there are too many middlemen trying to get full sales-equivalent payouts from the rental model and the money just isn’t there.

This was today highlighted at TPV today by PG himself, who pointed out that with the new per-page payouts at KU it is easy for an indie author to receive a higher payment for a full *rental* than a tradpub author would get for a full sale of a similar length title. And that only refers to ebooks; in the case of paperbacks, the indie author doesn’t need a full read to break even.

I’m thinking that anybody looking to build a viable subscription service is going to have to cut out most if not all the middlemen and deal directly with the author. Because anything else will either be too expensive to attract a high reader volume or deliver too low a payout to attract anybody but Indies.

Tom Semple July 2, 2015 um 4:39 pm

I don’t understand how this culling changes things for Scribd’s bottom line. Are the remaining titles less costly for them to make available? Or so unreadable that nobody will borrow them? If subscribers continue to read at the same rate, and the payout remains the same, then it hasn’t changed anything. Or are they hoping to lose the customers who are 'over-utilizing' the service?

fjtorres July 3, 2015 um 12:11 am

They save money three ways:
1- They are culling the paid books by those authors but keeping the free ones.
2- They hope that the romance readers switch to other, cheaper less palatable books and read less if they stay.
3- They hope the heavier readers will just quit. It will mean less income but much less cost.

Persnickety July 3, 2015 um 4:57 am

The harlequin back catalogue was a large part of why I subscribed to Scribd. And I certainly read a lot. I still have access to the books I read recently and Scribd is still recommending harlequin books to me, but I have noticed that the author range is different.

i hope that there is a viable model of a subscription reading service- my local libraries don’t have the same books, and I don’t want to buy them permanently for my kindle.

Sheogorath July 5, 2015 um 11:32 pm

As I and many others pointed out when Scribd and Oyster launched in late 2013 […]
Shouldn’t that be "when Scribd launched with Oyster in late 2013"? I’m sure I’ve seen Scribd around since mid-2010, back when you didn’t need a Scribd account to download the free content it hosted.

Eric July 8, 2015 um 11:08 am

All I see is speculation. Everyone is out there guessing. What I want to see is some real financial data for the subscription services, i.e. their total revenue and their expenses broken down by category. Until such time articles discussing the viability of the model will have little value. I subscribe to both Scribd and KU and I read an average of 130 books per year according to my Goodreads records, yet looking at the books I’ve read of Scribd and KU, both are making money off me. But my experience does not represent data, only anecdote.

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