Back in 2015, when first Entitle then Oyster closed in quick succession, it looked to many like the “Netflix for books” subscription model had no future. Or at least, none outside Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited.
At the time, Wired said,
The news comes as a bit of a surprise—Oyster was one of the major players in the e-book subscription space along with San Francisco startup Scribd and Amazon, which offers all-you-can eat reading through Kindle Unlimited. Unlike Amazon, however, Oyster had the backing of the Big Five publishers—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—who offered their books on the service (adding) The Big Five also work with Scribd.
Okay, so we can argue about just how surprising was the Oyster closure. Having to compete with both Scribd and Kindle Unlimited in a US market where publishers preferred to sell per unit was always going to be challenging. The only domestic advantage Oyster and Scribd had over Amazon was the engagement of most of the Big 5.
But Scribd also came to the table with an international base that Oyster (and initially Kindle Unlimited) did not, which would have helped Scribd balance the books.
Whatever the detail, Oyster closed, Scribd seemed to be struggling, having to limit its “unlimited” access, and for a while it seemed to many like the subscription model experiment was doomed to failure.
Fast forward to 2019 and Kindle Unlimited is reported (no confirmation from Amazon, so we should be wary of this figure) to have over 10 million subscribers worldwide (meaning in the handful of KU-enabled countries).
Whatever the actual figure it seems safe to say Kindle Unlimited is big, but don’t be too hasty in writing off the other players.
Scribd began the year announcing it had one million subscribers.
Sweden’s Storytel mid-year hit the same milestone.
And other digital books players – Poland’s Audioteka and Legimi –
and Brazil’s Ubook –
are also understood to have over a million subscribers each.
Kobo’s own subscription service Kobo Plus is already in the Netherlands and Belgium and doing rather well, and is set to expand into France at any time.
Even Africa is not immune. Earlier this year YouScribe announced exciting new interest in subscription digital books on the continent.
Globally digital book subscription services are proliferating regardless of the studied indifference of the big western publishers, and in doing so completely undermine the popular narrative in some quarters that ebooks are yesterday’s format.
Still not convinced? I could list myriad more examples (Bookmate, LitRes, Skoobe, 24 Symbols, BookChoice, etc) of subscription services defying conventional publishing wisdom (which as so often is the case is at odds with what consumers want) but let me mention just one more here:
Epic! is a US-based children’s digital books subscription service that copped $30 million in new funding earlier this year to boost further it’s 1.7 million paying subscriber base.
Per the links above, Ubook has also had a cash injection and has an IPO imminent and Legimi has an IPO lined up.
And then there’s Storytel, which just fixed itself a $50 million credit facility for further expansion.
Which all brings us neatly back to Scribd, that just recently launched a dedicated operation in Mexico.
And now comes news that Spectrum Equity is to inject $58 million into Scribd to,
support growth and product innovation, enhance operations, and further the company’s mission to change the way the world reads.
Founded in 2007, Scribd launched what it claims is “the world’s first (digital) reading subscription service in 2013, a year before, and very much laying the groundwork for Kindle Unlimited.
Today, while fielding a million paying subscribers, Scribd also sells content and offers content sharing, pulling in,
more than 100 million unique visitors every month and readers have spent a total of over 190 million hours reading on the platform.
The press release notes Scribd has nearly doubled its employee numbers, and in addition to its San Francisco HQ now has offices in New York, Phoenix, Toronto, and Amsterdam.
There’s not too much detail at this time about how that $58 million will be deployed, but this statement from CEO Trip Adler sets the tone.
We’re excited to partner with Spectrum Equity, a firm with deep expertise in high growth subscription businesses, as we prepare for the future. By partnering with the world’s best publishers of all types of content, Scribd has introduced a first-of-its-kind experience for readers, while unlocking a new revenue stream for the publishing community. This funding will enable us to continue to operate sustainably and efficiently while accelerating our growth, product innovations, content acquisition and continued investment in our employees.
For Spectrum Equity, Managing Director Pete Jensen said,
As a differentiated content library, including robust user-generated content and ebooks and audiobooks from top tier publishers, Scribd is poised to be the leading online subscription reading service for consumers across the globe. Spectrum has been fortunate to be a part of successfully scaling several digital content businesses, and we look forward to partnering with Trip and the entire management team to help make Scribd a part of readers’ everyday lives.
Read the original press release from Scribd here.
To the many publishers and authors still on the fence about how global digital subscription, and how the model can bring new opportunities, I leave you with this sobering thought:
As we say goodbye to 2019 there are 4.5 billion people online around the world. Just 312 million of them are in the USA – that means the USA makes up less than 7% of the world’s internet users.