scribdEveryone has said that for subscription services to succeed, they have to have more books everyone has heard of. The subtext of that statement is that they need to have more books by traditional publishing. Scribd has done a pretty good job until now, signing deals with HarperCollins, Wiley, Kensington, Simon & Schuster, Open Road Media and Harlequin. (Did I miss anyone?)

Today they add a third “Big 5” publisher, Macmillan.

We knew it was coming based on John Sargent’s open letter from last month announcing their deal with Amazon. In that letter, Sargent said:

In our search for new routes to market, we have been considering alternative business models including the subscription model. Many of you know that we have long been opposed to subscription. We have always worried that it will erode the perceived value of your books. Though this significant long-term risk remains, we have decided to test subscription in the coming weeks. Several companies offer “pay per read” plans that offer favorable economic terms. We plan to try subscription with backlist books, and mostly with titles that are not well represented at bricks and mortar retail stores.

When I read that letter, I figured an announcement with Scribd or Oyster (or both) was coming soon. The folks at Scribd said they have had a retail relationship with Macmillan for more than a year and that they are excited to show what they can do with the subscription side.

The offerings are modest at first, with only about a thousand titles, but there are some good ones, especially in science fiction. Authors include Ursula K. LeGuin, Elizabeth Bear, and Orson Scott Card. Also there are Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa and celebrated social critics Greil Marcus, Louis Menand, and Michel Foucault.

When I asked my contact at Scribd about the seemingly grudging Sargent comment about testing the service on books not well represented in brick and mortar stores, they had this response:

We’ve actually found that many of the titles that do exceptionally well on subscription are those that are underrepresented in brick and mortar as Macmillan mentioned. Through algorithmic and editorial recommendations, we’re able to better tailor and serve up the right book to the right reader, that’s not something that can happen in a traditional setting.

That’s a good point. I know I’ve found authors I might not have discovered otherwise through Scribd, and I do believe subscription services can be a way to help readers discover more great books.

With any luck, the discovery will be so good that Macmillan will add more books to the service.

While I hope the other two Big 5 publishers will join in, I doubt Hachette will be willing to do so, and my guess is Penguin Random House is so large that, if they tried subscription, they might be tempted to try one on their own. They certainly have enough titles to make a good effort.

Any particular Macmillan titles you’re hoping to see in Scribd?

Update: I wasn’t surprised to receive an email today announcing that Macmillan had also signed with Oyster. The two services continue to have similar selections, which is good news for those who prefer one service over the other.


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