REVIEW of the eBook Subscription Services
With the launch of Kindle Unlimited, we thought it was time to do a comparison and give our opinion as to which one is worth your $9 or $10 per month. We began talking about subscriptions back in 2009 and I followed that up in 2011. It’s amusing to look at the considerations that we discussed at the time. I was willing to pay $25 a month at the time! Not so much now.
Like the fancy chart? I worked on that on and off for hours. It sucks, I know. Graphic design is not my forte. Colors, fonts, white space? Also not my thing. Words are my thing. Incorrectly spelled words, but words nonetheless so here is my barrage of words pertaining to subscriptions.
Updated: I should note that Scribd is $1 cheaper than all others, is the only one available outside the US and if you are a DA reader, you can try it out for three months for free: http://www.scribd.com/promo/
Scribd is a lovely app both in iOS and Android although I found the note taking / highlighting a tad more intuitive on my iPad. As you can see in the screenshots, the annotation features appear directly above the highlighted text whereas on my Samsung phone, it’s at the top menu bar. Awkward.
Browsing is a breeze. Simply scroll or flick your way through the catalog of books. Tap the one you want to read, download it and you’re off. If you stop reading on your mobile device, you can pick up on the web where you left off. It syncs the location. And you can go back to reading on your mobile device later.
You can only download twenty books at a time for offline reading which means you have to remove one book from your device before you can add another. That’s as easy as tapping the “Edit” and “Remove” links on the menu bar of your library screen.
Scribd also offers some discovery features. When you highlight a book on your recently read shelf, it presents other books in a similar vein.
Smashwords supplies access to the premium distribution catalog to both Scribd and Oyster. You can find titles from Kristen Ashley, Bonnie Dee, Carolyn Crane, Jessica Clare. But there are plenty of self published titles that are only available on Kindle Unlimited. Some authors won’t participate on the Scribd platform because of piracy. When you search an author and there is pirated material on Scribd, it can easily show up underneath the main books. I understand Scribd is working hard to ameliorate that and if you have a legitimate book on Scribd, it’s hard to find a pirated version but that’s kind of a shakedown for authors. Put your book on Scribd to prevent unauthorized copies on Scribd!
Nonetheless, I thought the look and feel across platforms for the Scribd version was really great. It was easy to browse and return books. It felt like a true library without any hassle of waiting, checking out books, and returning them. It’s as easy as opening the app and then getting lost in its multitude of offerings.
Like Scribd, KU’s platform is a delight to use on either iOS or Android. Both have the same feature set in terms of note taking, annotating, bookmarking but Android allows you to browse and buy from within the App itself. On iOS, the renting/borrowing of books must be done through the browser. From a user standpoint, this makes Scribd the more elegant and useable option for iOS readers.
Additionally, to return a book, you either have to go Amazon.Com / Manage Digital Content or if you have an Android device, try to “borrow” a book. If you’ve reached your 10 book limit, Amazon warns you that you have to return a book. It recommends a book to return or you have the option of going to your list of borrowed books.
Once the book is borrowed, though, it falls into your library just like any other book. You can’t tell the borrows apart from the purchases.
The content differs in two ways from Scribd. First, Amazon is subsidizing the subscription access for publishers like Scholastic (Harry Potter series), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Life of Pi, JR Tolkien) and maybe other publishers. Some of the Sourcebooks catalog is included but not all. For instance, the seven Windham series books by Grace Burrowes are KU eligible but the Captive Hearts or Lonely Lords series). I suspect it might be due to the publishing date. The older titles are in but the newer titles are out.
For self published titles, the rank and file must choose a 90 day exclusivity with Amazon called the Kindle Direct Publishing Select also known as KDP Select or Select. Bigger name self published authors have cut special deals with Amazon to be included without exclusivity.
One of the biggest challenges is find KU eligible titles. Sometimes, you get the option to search and then filter down to KU titles but this is little checkbox is not always available.
On my Android device, there’s a helpful graphic denoting with titles are KU eligible but I can’t browse “romances” within the KU category.The helpful graphic appears some, but not all of the time. Here you can see I’m browsing the romance section and no KU eligible graphic appears above Hudson even though it is eligible as can be seen in another list.
There’s a “search in KU” option but you can’t get there by the dropdown box on the search bar. Instead you have to go to the front page and click on the big KU graphic and then it appears.
There might be content but beyond what’s on the bestseller list, it’s damn hard to find. Additionally, I downloaded a copy to my desktop and when I opened my app there was a big red exclamation point and I received a “License Limit Reached” warning instructing me that I had exceeded the limit on the number of devices that could read the item.
When I re-synced, those book covers with the exclamation points disappeared. I went ahead and reborrowed the book and there was no warning.
The big problem with KU is the ease of use from the device. Checking out, browsing KU titles, and then returning isn’t an effortless experience. I’m not sure if this is because KU launched before it was supposed to given the leak or whether they just haven’t thought through how users will utilize this experience. I suspect its the former. You can easily drill down to Prime eligible movies and from the streaming menu on a Roku or XBOX you are able to explore Prime only content as well.
Oyster is my least favorite of the services. It contains basically the same content as scribed and for a few cents less but
you can’t search from the web unless you subscribe which puts you at a disadvantage. In order to sign up for the free trial you have to hand over the credit card. Thus in order to see whether the service even has the content you might be interested in, you have to sign up. I find that to be intrusive and limiting.
Update: Oyster contacted me and asked if I would make the following correction:
The second really negative feature about Oyster is that it’s non iOS apps–both for the Web and the Android OS–are devoid of any functionality. You can read and that’s about it. There is no way to bookmark, search, highlight passages. In Android, the menu bar at the time shows at all times which is a completely different user interface than any other app, not even the reading apps, just every app out there.
Given that the content is pretty much the same as Scribd, except for McSweeney and Rodale publications, I saw little reason to sign up for Oyster over Scribd.
In my opinion, there are really only two subscription services worth using. It’s either Scribd or Kindle Unlimited.
The limitations are access to content. Each reader has to decide for themselves if the content is worthwhile. The content in Scribd feels more robust given the participation of HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster however even those publishers aren’t allowing access to the front list.
Subscription with Scribd feels right if you want to read backlist titles. There are a ton there. I read Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” in no time and was presented with a host of other biographies after I was finished. If I didn’t read romance, I could spend my life in a subscription like Scribd.
But if you are reading newer books, I think Kindle Unlimited is the way to go but you are looking at access of primarily self published titles that are exclusive to Amazon in addition to Amazon titles. Is that worth $9.99?
I missed Berkley books as well as Harlequin. I’d love it if I had an endless access to category romances. I’ve wanted it for some time. Perhaps with the HC acquisition of Harlequin that may come to pass yet.
Content is vital for these subscription services. CEO Trip Adler told DBW that “The No. 1 reason people stop subscribing is that they want more books. We’re focused on getting best-selling books to attract readers.”
There’s no question that readers like subscription services. When Smashwords premium catalog went live on the Scribd platform, Mark Coker said “It was the largest first-month sales for any new Smashwords retail partner in the last five years.”
Kindle Unlimited Affect
More recently, Amazon’s Kindle bestseller list is displaying the power of its subscription service. Over at Publishers Lunch (subscription link), they are documenting the rise of KU titles on the top 100 list. The top 100 list is important because Amazon’s recommendation algorithms start to take notice and recommend those books at various points on their site thus increasing their sales overall.
As of the 23rd, Cader reported that “45 of the top 100 titles are also available through Kindle Unlimited — and 24 of the top 50 titles.” This includes Amazon published titles (which are all KU books), along with the subsidized publisher titles, followed by the self published books that are exclusive to Amazon.
As of the writing 25th, 19 of the top 40 were KU titles, although most of the exclusive titles were Amazon imprints and only a handful were KDP Select titles. It should be noted that some of the top tier indie authors are allowed to participate in KU without being exclusive.
There are a lot of readers trying out KU this month. Bloggers have reported a decline in Affiliate sales. Whether this will remain constant, see Adler’s comment above. Each subscription service will need to add more content in order to keep the readers.
As for how authors get paid, all receive some proceeds after 10% of the book is accessed. Scribd and Oyster authors receive 60% of their retail rate and KU authors get a share of the “Global Fund.” The Global Fund is a fund set by Amazon that generally nets an author $2 per borrow through the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library and likely the same amount participation in KU. Amazon increased this month’s fund by $800,000.
As a side note, the authors who are making bank on the KU are those who are publishing serials at 99c. First, it takes almost no time to get to 10% on a serial that’s not much more than 60+ pages and second, the 99c book generates only $.30 in royalty versus the $2 per download/borrow through the Global Fund. Amazon does not differentiate between retail price when paying out monies through the Fund.
Generally speaking, anyone who is pricing their book under $2.99 is coming out ahead. Anyone with a retail price of above $2.99 is likely taking some loss in exchange for exposure.
KU Recommended Reads
Darlynne, a long time reader of Dear Author, went through hundreds of KU pages and made up a spreadsheet of entries that are worth your time.
The books listed are either those I immediately grabbed for myself or are highly recommended by any definition of good crime writing. Not all series/books are offered, not all books in a series are included in KU. In the case of a series, I’ve provided the title of the first book. Ultimately, I’d like to produce one list of just author names, shorthand for, “Try these, surprise yourself.”
All the books here are recommended: highly recommended books display “R” in the Comment column, books I loved display “S” for squee. None of this guarantees any of the books will work for or speak to other readers, but I offer this list as a starting point for new-to-mystery readers or as a means to alert others who weren’t compelled to go through every single entry. The good news is that free-ish book = no regrets. What a relief.
Anyone want to do this for romance?