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Scribd Challenges Amazon and Apple With ‘Netflix for Books’ (wired.com)
75 points by gotosleep on Oct 1, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments



It would be great if public libraries offered this service (or one like it) to their patrons. My local library offers Overdrive Media Console [1], but the selection always seems to be lacking and the apps are subpar. An electronic rental service with books that people actually want to read would be killer and could save libraries money. My library system has cut back on inter-library requests because of shrinking funding, and an electronic delivery system could help cut costs.

[1] http://omc.overdrive.com


My library co-op uses the same system, and while they do have books I want to read, they're often out of stock of the ebook. That irritates me enough to not borrow ebooks from them.


Not sure what system my library uses, but mine has a wait-list that will check out the ebook for you when it's your turn.

Either way: given that many public libraries offer ebook rentals for free, Scribd should be marketing to them rather than directly to customers.


I have several ebooks for sale on Amazon. I tried to DONATE unlimited access to them to my local public library, and I cannot get them to return or even acknowledge my repeated emails about it.


My library has overdrive as well, and I get the books on the kindle (app). There's an option to read on their site, but the software sucks compared to the dedicated reader. I think they also do adobe's epub as well.


I generally like where this going, though I disagree with the assertion that "it will be easier to browse".

The potential for browsing will be increased. However, the actual user experience of browsing for books on the internet still pretty much sucks. Most places take the low-hanging fruit and have pretty good searching capability. However, searching and browsing are not the same experience. Recommendations (like from Amazon) is not browsing -- it's prompting based on intentional searching.

To do online browsing well, you have to come back to what the UX for browsing in a library or a bookstore feels like. You wander around spaces, and pick out books that catch your attention. Illustrations on book covers means a lot more. And for people like me that process information kinesthetically, the spatial relationships of the books (where it is on the shelf, which shelf it is on, how many steps it takes to go down one aisle, how wide are the aisles in relation to how far I can stretch my arms, etc.) matters a lot more.

I've toyed with the notion of creating a dedicated Android app to prototype this idea. That is, creating an online browsing experience to replace my bookshelf so that I can show it off for guests. Some of the lessons that can be extracted from creating that would apply to an online browsing experience -- or a physical retail experience that includes an online component.

Looking at how Scribd redid their site to support this, I think they understand some of the issues. But in the end, it looks more like they are copying Netflix rather than really rethinking at a more fundamental level of what "browsing" means as an experience.


I completely agree about the terrible state of browsing in online bookstores.

In terms of non-fiction, I've discovered tons of books at a university library by searching the catalog for a few books on a given topic, then going to the shelf and looking at all the books around it, which I would not have otherwise found.

I'd love some kind of Dewey Decimal browser with a bunch of extra filters. I don't know if that's feasible.


"I'd love some kind of Dewey Decimal browser with a bunch of extra filters. I don't know if that's feasible."

See, that's what I mean. When you're creating a space to show off or show case books, you're not really using any structured form of organization. The experience is more a form of an art. It's more like creating an art gallery or a museum than it is replicating a category system. The category system is easy; crafting a museum experience, that's harder.


Honestly, I reckon that using _much_ larger thumbnails would be a big step forward in the experience. Most people pick books by their covers, then check out the blurb on the back. Amazon's thumbs are tiny, hell even the product page has a tiny image. I think that experimenting with size alone would get you quite a long way.

Perhaps take a cue from fashion brands like Gilt who have had to recreate the retail experience for shoppers.

(someone please do this . . . please)


Sure, and I think that is just the first step. I'm with you on the "retail experience" though maybe not necessarily a recreation.

I'm thinking more along the lines of an art gallery, or a museum, or an amusement park. You have paths with one or two limited choices, and allow you to wander from exhibit to exhibit, collection to collection. You have maps or indices to take you directly to a particular area if you are busy. The point is to have an experience, the way you can wander around a mall looking at things. It is not efficient, and that's the point.

The word "browsing" comes from the way browsers behave in the wild. These are grazing animals that wander along with the herd, eating things as they come. What Scribd and Netflix does is technically not browsing.


That's certainly part of it as well. If you look at fashion sites you definitely have a limited, curated selection of items to choose from. Still, I reckon a basic UI change alone would do wonders before even bothering with the harder stuff like curation.


To respond to your note about browsing.

Typically books are arranged alphabetically and thematically. Some times, shelf placement is a variable in marketing.

When you take shelf placement as marketing to it's logical extreme, you end up with something like Amazon -- where you've optimized for conversions rather than overall user experience. As any Sales / Marketing person can tell you, best experience != most conversions.

People are indecisive when confronted with many choices.

I could see browsing as a great ideal for subscription services though. Amazon and most e-commerce is a bad comparison though, as browsing is generally bad for transactional businesses (due to reasons above). This is yet another reason why traditional book stores are at a disadvantage.


Sure, and granted, the personal device I was thinking of is to arrange it thematically on how I want to present the books to guests. Not necessarily as product categories (genre). However, to say that Amazon takes this to the extreme misses the point. Amazon is optimized for conversion only because there has not been better browsing experiences. You go to Amazon when you are looking for something specific and maybe buy a book off of the recommendation. You don't go to Amazon when you are bored and looking for something new to read.

I think though, the rest of your argument is sketchy. "Amazon and most e-commerce is a bad comparison though, as browsing is generally bad for transactional businesses" That's great, except that Amazon is not optimized for browsing, it is optimized for searching, as I've mentioned in my comment.


Whilst I'm pretty sure I'd use this or something like it, it's kinda sad the traditional libraries I used so much (and for free) when I was younger can't keep up with the pace of convenience. I often wonder how long it'll be before the smaller towns (sadly) lose them completely.

That said, good luck to them :-)


This is in a class of things I'm worried about. The good institutions & traditions that we built over decades (or in this case, millennia) becoming obsolete, dying and taking all the side benefits with them. Many lost their primary purpose, but they had so many important auxiliary purposes that I'm worried about losing them. For millennia, libraries stored knowledge and people went there to access it. All sorts of things naturally grew around this resource. Universities and their predecessors are one example but there are also small informal institutions. A group of friends meeting in a library because it is a a safe and quite place to do homework is an institution of sorts. A couple of homeless people using it as a safe place to hang out, read books and feel part of society is another example, especially if their interaction with others there is special in some way (it is).

There are lots of things like this. Churches. How do we do churches without gods? How do we allow young people to spend a few years focusing on their minds without universities. Can we have universities after going to lectures becomes obsolete?

Technology is eating a lot of things. It's eating them faster than we can replace them.


Technology is eating our souls.


It varies a lot, depending on what you read. I basically had my local library of classical literature and philosophy all to myself, but I'd have to wait months to get something like the next Harry Potter.

Maybe it's more of a feature than a bug. :)


What happens to all the information we have converted to digital form if a worldwide disaster occurred?

Think like a nuclear war and the resulting EMP wipes out most of the US/EU/Asia electronics.

Think even a massive solar flare that fries the majority of the electronic equipment.


Doesn't Amazon already have tie ins with libraries?[1] Combined with the Kindle "lending library" and Amazon's amazing marketing at the moment, I'm not sure they are a company I would want to compete with. Best of luck!

[1] http://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/?nodeId=...


I just signed up for it but it doesn't look very good to me. Not sure what's wrong.

http://i.imgur.com/6wMjmeI.png

Edit: tried the mobile app and it looks great there


It looks like they're using a custom font with scrambled letters (essentially a caesar cipher) and your browser isn't loading/using that font.

This is probably an attempt at DRM.


It's a simple substitution cipher, not a shift/caesar cipher. Neat idea, but I wonder at the effectiveness of it.


Hmm, I guess I've been using that term incorrectly to describe fixed substitution ciphers. It's been a few decades since I learned this stuff.

It's effective at preventing a simple copy/paste or "view source" but ineffective against an adversary of any sophistication.

I've seen this used in PDF files before. There, if you have a pristine copy of the embedded font, you can just look up a copy of the character program to find the original value. But it's effective against naive pdf to text or pdf to html services.

Then again, you could just ocr the rendered text, so I guess the obfuscation technique only has to be as effective as rendering the text as a bitmap.


Yeah, exactly. I OCRd the first line of the text and manually decrypted the first line of the book just to verify that's what was happening. You could mitigate it by having more complex font files with multicharacter glyphs and include non printing characters in the stream. Probably a "good enough" solution to stop the copy/pasting folks. Anybody knowledgable enough to crack this is is probably not going to waste the time and torrent the book anyway.


Hey Tucaz. Is this problem persistent for you? Does it happen even after refresh?

If so, dont hesitate to contact me personally at gabriel (at) scribd.com and I will look into this issue.


I'm at work behind a lousy internet connection and a proxy so maybe that's why. I'm going to try at home and see what's happen.

Anyway, not too much of a good first impression for non techies.


After 24symbols, youboox, publie.net, izneo, oyster (and probably lots I do not recall), we have a new contender as the netflix/spotify for books? What makes scribd better or more challenging to amazon?


Also safari books for tech content


of all the companies you listed, Scribd is the only one I've heard of.


youboox, publie.net, and izneo are French market based.


  #!/bin/sh
  for word in $(cat /etc/dictionaries-common/words);
  do
     echo A Netflix for $word;
  done


I've spent some time with this. NB This is my experience on the Android app and the website.

In the app, searching is abysmal. There's no way to specify the type of keyword you're searching for, so if it's an author, you'll probably have to wade through a sea of wildly irrelevant results to find that maybe they don't even have anything from that author.

I grabbed two different versions of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, both of which the website proudly stated were included in my subscription. Neither was a truely optimized ebook. More like PDF images, so the text or pages didn't scale.

The reading experience on the app is sub par. No options for font type, size, or color; no background options; or margin options. No "night mode" or similar.

There's also often not an indication that a book is just a preview on the website. I added Cormac McCarthy's Child of God to my library, and the app told me that it wasn't available in my country (US), but I could read it on the website, but I discovered it was a preview only.

Related to that, when searching on the website, it seems to prioritize purchase-only books over subscription books. I understand the why, but it's really frustrating to have to start scrolling to get to what most people will be looking for.

Then there's the trouble with having to wade through the sea of user-uploaded content. It seems like there should either be a separate app for the subscription portion, or at least a way to search ONLY that.

All in all, I really wish this was something I could see myself paying for, but right now, I think it's kind of a mess.


( I work for Scribd )

This is extremely valuable product feedback. You are completely right that the Scribd product delivered a terrible experience in this case. And the reason goes to the heart of one of the most difficult product design issues we've had: combining user generated and professional content.

An explanation is not a substitute for a fix, but in a nutshell what happened here is that you found copies of Frankenstein that had been uploaded by users. While the books we receive from publishers are ePub formatted and reflow nicely on a phone with controllable font settings, many user-uploaded works are PDFs.

We definitely do not a good enough job of messaging whether content is UGC or publisher, PDF or ePUB. We are working very hard on this. In the meantime, if you want to keep trying the app, here are some simple tips if you want to look at books only: - You can search through books only (click the books tab in search results) - Look for the "verified" badge which appears on publisher-provided material - The content browseable from http://www.scribd.com/browse/books is only publisher provided books.

I'd love to hear more product feedback - this was very helpful for us. Feel free to email me directly (email is in my profile).


This is awful. Scribd is not the answer. So I guess nothing to see here, moving along.


Could cstross or someone with equivalent knowledge tell us how this affects authors? If publishers like it someone must be getting screwed. Scribd is less a 'netflix' for books and more like a 'megadownload' for books, with the occasional academic paper for that 'we need bittorrent to get linux' veneer of respectability.


From the article: "Basically, a publisher gets paid only if a reader chooses one of its particular books — and it only gets paid in full if the book is read in full."

Sounds like it's free to browse, but the publisher gets paid if the book is actually read. I assume that publishers would pay authors at whatever rate they were already paying for ebooks.


Interesting that publishers would play ball with scribd, whose business model features selling access to pirated documents.


They just turned those former pirates into a revenue stream. It's a good business move. Either spend tons of money litigating pirates to just have them go somewhere else, or at least make some money off of the inevitable.


Yeah, but these pirates put their own DRM on everything and generally get in your way as much as any publisher paywall. This is more like hiring Hell's Angels to provide event security.


It seems that scribd's business model now more prominently features selling access to publisher content - seems like a fine decision to me.


‘This works so well in video and music. It’s inevitable that there’s something to do here in the book space too’

This works well for the distributor and the consumer but has yet to work well for the producer or the publisher. (note - I recognize it's unpopular to support the publisher in this case)


I'm not sure if "producer or publisher" are supposed to be distinct entities in this context?

Either way, that's not an intuitive conclusion. I've seen a lot of films on Netflix I would have never seen otherwise. Lots of Korean films for example. I can't think of another way I'd have been exposed to this content. So in that respect, if the publisher is seeing any compensation at all it seems like a good investment.

I've also seen a number of older US releases that are on my "eh, got a couple hours to burn, I'll give it a shot" list. I wouldn't have bothered to commit to a $3.99 iTunes rental for those features, but on Netflix it's "sure, why not?".

I (and most people I assumed) don't really have the patience to wait a few years for 1st-tier media to drop on Netflix, so it really doesn't substitute existing consumption.

Except in children's programming I guess now that I think about it. Much more convenient to have Curious George or what have you without the barrage of advertisements on cable.


Finally Scribd found a business model. I never understood what their value proposition was.


Yes, to me they always looked like a strictly value subtracting service in terms of functionality, making the documents they host less convenient to read than they were in their original form.


First they invented DRM for HTML5. Now they've figured out who to sell it to.


I don't know why, but I've determined that Scribd is evil where Amazon is not. This is an intuitive conclusion based on lots of observation. I think that intuition is based on the fact that Amazon made DRM on Kindle to satisfy their publishing customers so those customers were more willing to distribute to a wider audience where Scribd made DRM to empower themselves and restrict distribution of re-appropriated content. Also, mandatory Facebook integration..


Yeah, ditto. The attempts to "go social" and monetize felt sleazy.

Guess what, when I'm googling for some PDF or I find some guy's slides, I don't want to tell my friends, and I don't want to "buy the article" for $14.99 or whatever like it's frickin' JSTOR.


$8.99 is too high for this to be worth while for most readers, IMO. I'm a pretty regular reader and I'm lucky to get through 1 and half books a month. Most books I buy are under this price (around $5)... I can sample from Amazon before I buy, so I don't see the benefit here unless you're a power reader and most people are not.


1.5 books a month is probably higher than the national average, but you'd be surprised how voracious a lot of readers are. I probably read 2 books a week, and I'm by no means a power reader by the standards of those who really are. I know quite a few people who regularly plow through 5 a week. Especially fiction readers and readers of "snackable" nonfiction (Jon Krakauer, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, etc.).

Power readers are probably a small niche, but they're also a profitable niche. Younger readers (13-16), especially female, tend to consume YA novels like we consume HN posts. Vast fortunes have been made catering to that segment.


I read only non-fiction and sometimes I have to read through 20-40% of the book to decide whether I want to finish it. I think many people do same with fiction(especially fan-fiction). So there's niche for these people too. Many of these people are also bad at finishing books and such services will unfortunately encourage this behavior!


Not really a challenge to Apple. Apple doesn't care about books. Any garden you buy an ebook in can be read on an iOS device via ereader apps, including Scribd's app. Apple is happy to let app publishers innovate on software products since they are almost all optimized and catered to iOS users.


Instead of using Scribd, you can just build your own searchable and sharable digital library: https://register.blib.us


I saw an article about a similar company recently and, like this one, I was still left with an important unanswered question.

How is this service better than a library card?


I've been waiting for something like this to happen in books. Should be great for people who read at least one book per month.


so that's why their main site hasn't been updated in quite a while.




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