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Scribd and Smashwords Working to Build New Publishing/Distribution Models for Ebooks
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Posted On January 14, 2014
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Moving From Poor Cousin to Center Stage

Vanity publishing, the derided avenue for only those unable to attract the interest or investment of traditional publishers, has been remade by 21st-century technology into a behemoth that may threaten the existence of the traditional book publishing sector. Independent publishing—aka self-publishing, alternative press, indie publishing, independent press—allows anyone access to the tools and potential audiences once only the domain of the largest publishing houses. Clearly the dichotomy between alternative and mainstream publishing has been lost, as even well-established authors venture into self-publication.

Scribd offers all-you-can-read access to books and documents and, beginning last October, now offers an $8.99-per-month, Netflix-like account with “unlimited access to all the popular content on Scribd, which includes best-selling books and premium documents,” according to its website. Scribd is device-agnostic, and documents can be read on any iOS and Android smartphone, NOOK, Kindle, tablet, or desktop. “It’s hard to compete with those major retailers,” Kimberly Palmer, author of the book The Economy of You notes, “but more is always better when it comes to options for authors. I think Scribd’s mission is a great one and has a lot of potential to succeed, especially with the market for ebooks growing so rapidly right now.”

Smashwords began to offer its ebook publishing and distribution platform in 2008. Smashwords allows users to upload manuscripts in word processing formats and converts them into multiple DRM-free ebook formats with distribution “to the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony Reader Store, Kobo, Flipkart, Oyster, the Diesel eBook Store, Baker & Taylor’s Blio and Axis360 (libraries!) and more.” Authors and publishers receive 85% of the proceeds while retaining full control of pricing, metadata, and distribution channels. The company proudly claims to be the “world’s largest indie ebook distributor [with] 270,000+ titles published by 70,000+ authors and publishers.”

“Smashwords is a huge success,” says Processed Media’s Joe Esposito. “Mark Coker is a brilliant entrepreneur. The company now has revenue of $20 million. How many book start-ups can claim that? Smashwords is now in a position to be regarded seriously as an acquisition candidate. Ironically, it’s possible that Amazon could make an approach to gobble up more market share.”

According to the December announcement, ebook subscription service Scribd will bring more than 225,000 Smashwords titles into the Scribd inventory, offering unlimited reading for $8.99 per month. In addition, the deal provides that Smashwords ebooks will also be available for individual sale to Scribd members. Smashwords authors will have the ability to distribute their ebooks through the Scribd network and will provide ebook authors with marketing tools—including metadata from Scribd’s 80 million members. Each Smashwords author will get a Scribd profile page for promoting his works and interacting with his readers along with a free 1-year subscription to Scribd. Scribd also promises to feature Smashwords authors on its blog and social media channels. Coker expects Smashwords Premium Catalog books to begin appearing on Scribd this month.

This represents another interesting distribution move on the part of Smashwords and is a boon for its indie authors, opening more doors to e-reading communities across the globe. As Coker explains on the Smashwords blog, “[O]nce a subscriber is enrolled, the [subscription] service provides a virtually frictionless ebook consumption experience. See a book you want to read? Start reading now with a click, without the hassle of clicking a buy button, or entering your credit card information, or taking a financial risk on an unknown author or an unknown book. Click and read, and if you don’t like the book, the reader has no worries and no buyer’s remorse. They’ll just click to the next, all without concern of their end-of-month credit card bill.”

Oyster, another competing all-you-can-read for $9.95-per-month service, has an inventory of more than 100,000 books and a mission to “to build the best reading experience, one that is both communal and personal, anytime, anywhere,” according to the Oyster blog. If all-you-can-read takes off, we can expect to see more entrants in this arena and price competition. Libraries can only wish that this device-agnostic, reasonably priced method—minus the hideous DRM-rigid platforms of ebrary and others—will eventually lead to subscription deals for libraries and schools as well.

Mercy Pilkington, who blogs at Good E-Reader, explains that “in the coming year, I see subscriptions based ebook consumption finally coming into its own. It’s not a new idea by any stretch, with platforms like 24Symbols launching as long ago as 2010. But back then, the industry wasn’t even sure what to do with ebooks, let alone how to create a sustainable royalty model based on lending. Now that all parties involved are fairly confident in the viability of digital, they’re finally ready to embrace subscriptions.”


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Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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