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Scribd Rolls Out First All-You-Can-Listen Audiobooks Service

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The Apple EarPods are shown during a product review in San Francisco, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. Jeff Chiu / AP file

The rise of the Subscription Economy continues.

Little more than a year after launching its all-you-can-read ebook service, the San Francisco startup Scribd has announced that the service now offers more than 30,000 audiobooks, including titles from big-name publishing houses HarperCollins and Scholastic as well as audiobook-specialist Blackstone. For $8.99 a month, you can not only read as many books as you can find on the service, but also listen to as many audiobooks as you can find.

According to HarperCollins chief digital officer Chantal Restivo-Alessi, this is the first subscription service to offer unlimited access to audiobooks, and though that may seem like a minor distinction, it represents a much larger shift in the way digital content is consumed over the net. Companies like Spotify offer unlimited access to music for a flat monthly fee. Netflix and Amazon do much the same for movies. And after companies like Scribd and Oyster pioneered similar services for ebooks, the subscription model is now pushing into the audiobook market as well.

With these services, you don’t buy an individual movie or a song or a book and store it on your machine. You pay for the right to access a massive online catalog whenever you like.

More and more, it seems, this is the way people prefer to pay for digital stuff online. Scribd CEO Trip Adler declines to say how many people are using the company’s service, but he claims about 50 percent growth every month. And as the likes of Spotify and Netflix expand their reach, they’re eating into services that ask you to pay for discrete items.

Just recently, Amazon CFO Tom Szkuta told the world that more of the company’s customers now prefer to rent rather than buy, seeking to explain a recent slowdown in the sale of media on the site. Rather than forking over dough to own books, music, movies, and games, these customers are opting for subscription services and other similar services. Apple has also seen this change, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal, with iTunes music sales declining 13 to 14 percent since the start of the year.

It’s no wonder that both Apple and Amazon are now shifting towards the subscription model. Apple recently acquired the Beats music subscription service, and Amazon is now pushing services like Prime, which offers unlimited access to music and video, and Kindle Unlimited, which offers ebooks.

For the customer, the new model makes good sense. Why pay to own something when you can so easily and so cheaply revisit it on the net at any time? Part of Scribd’s pitch is that its service lets you not only revisit books, but also sample them. “We make it a lot easier to just start a piece of content,” says Scribd CEO Trip Adler. “You can simply try out different books and audiobooks until you find what you want.”

The question is whether the economics will ultimately make sense for those who produce the content. But in some ways, subscription services can actually end up boosting additional sales. According to Restivo-Alessi, after HarperCollins joined forces with Scribd on its ebook service, the publisher has seen “incremental growth” in sales and “increased exposure” for its back catalog. “We believe the world will continue to be a mixed world. A la carte retail and subscription. Physical and digital,” Restivo-Alessi says. “Our job is to offer choice to consumers and allow them to access our content in as many ways as possible as long as its value is recognized.”

That may be true. But subscriptions are on the rise. Very much so.

--- Cade Metz, Wired

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