A few years ago, everyone seemed certain that ebooks were taking over, and companies rushed to form the first successful “Netflix for books” service that could provide readers with unlimited ebooks for a low monthly price. Amazon jumped into the market with Kindle Unlimited, challenging the already existing Scribd and Oyster for the ebook subscription crown. But in the last year, ebook sales seem to to be declining or, at best, holding steady with a small slice of the market. While ebooks aren’t going anywhere, the dream of a Netflix or Spotify for books seems further away than ever.

Oyster, the best of the Netflix for books services, shut down last fall after Google bought up most of the talent. Another service, Entitle, also shut down last year. While Oyster offered books from Big 5 publishers like HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited is populated almost entirely with self-published books. If you love reading self-published books by unknown authors, Kindle Unlimited might be attractive, but it lacks the big name equivalents of the pop, TV and film stars that draw users to Spotify and Netflix.

This has left Scribd as the only major service to offer Big 5 authors alongside self-published books. Yet this week, Scribd announced plans to shutter its all-you-can-read Netflix-style buffet. Publisher’s Weekly explains:

Under the new plan, Scribd’s subscription service will essentially be a hybrid offering. Monthly subscribers will be issued Monthly Read credits that will enable them to read three e-books and one audiobook every month from the full Scribd library, while still being able to read an unlimited number of books from Scribd Selects, a rotating selection of titles.

Why is Scribd implementing such a confusing and user unfriendly system–a pool of rotating books that are all-you-can-read, a second pool where users can only pick three per month, and a third pool of audiobooks where users can only pick one per month–all of the sudden? The answer might be romance readers. Last year, Scribd drastically cut its romance and erotica offerings because, well, people were reading too many of them. Simply put, Scribd pays publishers on a per-read basis, and romance fans plow through so many books each month they were bankrupting the company.

Scribd is spinning this as an “excess in moderation” system, but we’ll see if readers buy it, or whether they’ll flee after yet another big change to the service. Then again, where do they flee to?

At this point, it seems possible that a “Netflix for books” service just can’t work. And perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising. Rabid romance fans aside, most people read fewer books per month than they watch films or listen to albums. As such, paying ~$10 a month is much less of a deal for unlimited books than unlimited music or film and TV. This is especially true when even the services that have deals with the Big 5 presses don’t have access to most of their titles in the way that Spotify has almost any album you could want.  Netflix, of course, also doesn’t have a tremendously great selection of TV and film. But Netflix recognized this problem and responded by producing excellent and award-winning content like House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, and Daredevil. 

Could that be the way forward for a “Netflix for books” service? Big name books that are only available on Scribd or Kindle Unlimited? With the print market still dominating book sales, that seems unlikely anytime soon, at least without an ebook service overpaying popular authors to make it happen.

So for the foreseeable future, it’s likely that a “Netflix for books”–at least one that dominates books in any way resembling the way Spotify and Netflix dominate other media–just isn’t going to happen.

17 Responses

  1. Danielle

    I tried Oyster for free for 30 days when they were still around. The biggest issue I had was I could get all the books they were offering and more for free at the library. Not only that, most libraries use Overdrive, which also delivers ebooks to different devices. IMO Overdrive has the best model, dealing with libraries and corporations rather than individuals.

  2. Tom Tornari

    That’s because they aren’t looking at the business model correctly. Books are not the same product as DVDs or CDs.

    If you look to the past when libraries were around, you were entitled to rent a book, one at a time, but you had to return it within a specified time before you were allowed to rent another.

    If these Netflix for books services adopted similar practices it might work.

  3. Carol Wagner

    I’ve used my local public library card to access Overdrive to read ebooks. It’s a “free” Netflix for books.

    • Lincoln Michel

      It used to be the Big 6, but Penguin and Random House recently merged to be the Big 5:

      Penguin Random House
      Simon and Schuster

  4. Nate, editor of The Digital Reader

    You really shouldn’t mention Entitle in the same breath as Oyster and Scribd; it had an entirely different business model. Entitle tried to pull off a book club like model (and actually sell books), while Scribd and Oyster tried to be a Netflix for books (and sell access).

    Those aren’t the same thing.

  5. John Aga

    Kindle Unlimited (KU) is not being used by the Big 5 but apparently some of the smaller publishers are using KU. In 2015 Amazon paid out $140 million to KU authors. That does not sound like a failure.

      • Lincoln Michel

        Spotify wasn’t launched by by one of the most popular companies in the world with one of the largest user bases in the world. But either way, unless the major publishers do an about face, KU won’t have the huge inventory of popular authors to compare to Spotify’s huge catalog of popular musicians.

      • Nate, editor of The Digital Reader

        KU paid out at least $140 million last year. That’s more than the Nook paid to authors and publishers last year, and probably more than Kobo paid out.

        Based on revenue generated, KU is one of the top four or five ebookstores in the world, so if it doesn’t meet your definition of popular then the rest must be absolute pariahs.

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