What a real Spotify for books contender would look like, in my eyes, is this: a flat fee of £10 per month to take your unlimited collection of books everywhere — mobile, tablet, etc. Sort the audience attraction out first and the royalties later (because visibility is ultimately more important, right?). Allow for independent publishing but with quality checks on the level of formatting and basic proofreading. Offer an ad-only free option for laptop/computer reading…

oyster and scribd

Not my words, but the words of… No. They are actually my words. I said that back in April in response to Tim Waterstones’ Read Petite program announcement — essentially a ‘Spotify for Books’, only not that attractive for consumers or publishers, in all honesty. It still felt like there was a big contender to come. A big player in the world of subscription-based reading.

Well, October is here, and there are two kids on the block. Buoyed by the impact of Spotify on the music industry and the resurgence of Netflix as a TV ‘network’, Oyster and Scribd are taking the first major steps in the world of subscription based reading.

Do not underestimate the potential impact and repercussions these two products may well have on the world of publishing and reading — you’d be making the same mistake the music industry made when little ol’ Spotify sneaked onto the scene with its promise of unlimited mobile music for less than ten dollars a month. The Premium option now has eight million subscribers, converting many former music pirates (myself included) to its accessible and sprawling catalogue.

But first, let’s clear up the basics.

What is a subscription model?

If you are unfamiliar with Spotify or Netflix, the subscription model that Oyster and Scribd are proposing may need a little explaining. Basically, a subscription model is where you pay, say, $8 per month, and receive unlimited access to a library of books/music/films. The subscription model — so, let’s use Spotify as an example — might give you some benefits like access to music on your mobile, essentially allowing you to carry a very, very large iPod around with you. This is also accompanied by a ‘freemium’ model, which in Spotify’s case is ten hours of free music per month supported by advertisements.

The pros to the subscription model? Access. You can jump right in to any album/book/film you may have initially been reluctant about and  go ahead and access it as many times as you want. Or, if you don’t enjoy it, you can move onto the next one. Simple.

The negatives? You don’t actually own anything. Subscription services are more akin to a ‘rental’ of said products, which may be hard for avid materialists to adjust to. It was tricky for me, but I’m completely knee-deep in Spotify and Netflix these days, so it is possible. There is, however,  the problem of ‘choice paralysis’. It’s a strange phenomenon where having access to everything actually makes you reluctant to listen to anything. Hard to explain, but have you ever had your cable remote and been unable to find anything decent to watch even though you have thousands of channels? Basically, that.

What do Oyster and Scribd offer?

Oyster, the first kid on the block of the pair, offers a library of over 100,000 books with unlimited access for $9.95 per month. It’s iPhone exclusive for the time being, but the app is pretty solid. There are things like Offline Reading — which allows you to temporarily download up to ten books to your device for when you’re in those treacherous ‘no signal’ zones — which is pretty cool.

However, there seems to be 1.) a lack of new releases, with Life of Pi being the major launch title, and 2.) a major lack of independent support. This might not seem a problem for readers, but to independent authors, who now make up a large portion of bestselling authors in general (10-20%, perhaps?), this may be off-putting.

The bad news doesn’t stop there for ‘indies’. As well as a seeming preference towards the traditionally published ‘classics’, Oyster is murky about just how much of a royalty cut they offer to authors. They promise ‘competitive’ rates, but there’s no transparency on just how competitive they are, leading a number of kBoards users to opt out of the service. A little more transparency could go a long way.

As for Scribd, things look a bit better to readers. There are already apps available for the iPad, Kindle Fire, and Android, which is a stronger start that Oyster. The service is a buck cheaper to, at $8.99 per month. All looking rosy for Scribd, right?

Well, again, as with all new product launches, there are potential teething problems for both readers and writers. Scribd doesn’t say just how many titles there are on offer. Again, a little transparency in this department could be helpful, as consumers like to know just how much they are getting for their money. Also, in similarly discouraging news for independent authors, the royalty rates are just as cloudy as they are with Oyster. There are rumours that royalty pay outs are based on how much of a book is read (so, 10% of a book = a tenth of potential maximum royalty, etc). This could work well, but it would be nice to see some real figures in action.

I’m an author. Should I enrol my book in both services when possible?

Smashwords allows distribution to Oyster already, so you might want to start thinking about whether you are going to enrol or not. Personally, I won’t be right now, but mainly because I use Draft2Digital for my external distribution.

But will I distribute to Oyster and Scribd when I can? Well, it might surprise you to hear that my answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

I realise this kind of goes against a lot of my reservations discussed, but as an independent publisher and writer, I want my work to be available everywhere. I understand the reluctance of many authors based on the lack of royalty transparency, but the truth is, I’d rather offer the book and receive a penny for it than not offer the book and receive nothing.

Enrolling into Oyster and Scribd is tapping into yet another kind of reader base: the subscriber. By being stubborn and choosing not to enrol, it would be naive to assume that said subscriber is going to head on over to the Kindle store and buy my book separately when they can simply tap in to one of the other 99,999 books in their subscription. And as proven with Spotify, royalties improve over time, and will continue to do so.

I can’t predict the future. I did expect two subscription services to emerge in 2013, but I cannot say what the future holds for them. I still think an ad-supported ‘freemium’ model akin to Spotify could be the future, but we’ll see. All I can say is that, in my humble opinion, potential visibility trumps reluctance. I want my books to be available in any service that increases my potential audience. I think about that before I think of how much of a royalty cut I’m going to get. That’s why I started off in KDP Select, building my Amazon audience before moving on to other stores. It’s why I don’t dislike pirates one bit, and absolutely do not try to fight them, instead encouraging readers to share, share, share my books.

To make the decision for yourself, you have to ask the question: what do I want? Is it increased visibility? Or is it increased profits on other stores? There is no right or wrong answer.

Which is why this whole publishing game is so frigging exciting.

What are your thoughts on Oyster and Scribd? Are you attracted or put off by subscription services, as a writer or a reader?