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What Ebook Resellers Should Learn from Scribd

Scribd made a splash when they opened up a “Scribd Store” for selling view and download access to documents. Their terms (80% to the document publisher) are quite generous, though one reason publishers keep so much is that most of the merchandising (including pricing) is self service — Scribd could learn a lot from other media retailers if they’re interested in really promoting document sales.

But one area where existing ebook resellers could really learn from Scribd is in terms of data access and reporting. During one particularly frustrating conversation with an ebook reseller just last week, I learned that we’d be lucky to get sales reports nearly 6 weeks after any sales. These are digital sales. On the Web. Paid by credit card. No inventory to track, no shipping, no check or invoice processing.

Compare that to Scribd, where I get an email every time a document is sold telling me how much it sold for, and the total lifetime earnings for that document. I can also view a graph showing document views over time:

scribd graph

And every single day I get a detailed summary of document activity (this is a very small excerpt):

Here's your daily summary of what's happened with your Scribd account since
you last checked out the site.

      Someone liked your document entitled "Apache 2 Pocket Reference by O'Reilly Media"!
 7 minutes ago
      Someone liked your document entitled "JRuby Cookbook by O'Reilly Media"!
 7 minutes ago
      Someone liked your document entitled "Analyzing Business Data with Excel by O'Reilly Media"!
 31 minutes ago

Maria added your document "Tomcat: The Definitive Guide by O'Reilly Media" to their list of favorites

 39 minutes ago

There’s also quite a variety of reporting formats and interfaces in the wild among ebook resellers, meaning lots of time is spent by either IT staff or accounting staff (or both) parsing and processing each flavor of report. Though there is a Digital Sales Report format, I haven’t heard about any reseller actually using it (if you know of one, tell me in the comments).

Success on the Web requires nearly realtime analytics, and that’s one area of ebook retailing Scribd seems to really understand.

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Comments: 13

  1. This makes me very hopeful that Scribd will take a different approach than say, i don’t know – Amazon maybe–in terms of sharing data. Kindle reports are BASIC units sold, and not exactly timely.

    This kind of data – well, it’s priceless for publishers. It means we can make better-informed decisions about what readers are interested in, and make smart publishing decisions that best serve everyone(including the retailer). Nice to see an online ebook retailer recognize that and actually go out of their way to help streamline the process rather than go out of their way to keep the data locked up in a vault somewhere.

    Thanks for the post, Andrew.

    I can live with the lack of merchandising. Though, I’d be willing to give up an extra 5% to see better browsing and search. Given their very high production value UI, I’d say they will probably be adding some of these features soon.

  2. It’d be nice if this worked outside the USA. I’ve just discovered I cannot purchase from the store, so I’m assuming non-US publishers cannot participate. Surprised that Scribd doesn’t let author-publishers determine where they want to sell their product. Andrew, do you get data on Non-US activity (visits etc) as well as sales stuff?

  3. @David — my understanding (though you’d need to talk to Scribd for specifics) is that their Store Beta is limited to the US, but eventually they plan/hope to offer sales elsewhere.

    Right now there’s no geolocation stats on views, but they’re regularly updating their analytics and stats, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they added that somewhere along the way.

  4. Interesting post. What caught my attention was your mention of the Digital Sales Reporting format. I co-founded and co-chaired the committee that created this standard back in 2002 (I believe).

    The standard was created with buy-in from major publishers and retailers. Regrettably, this was at a time of flux at BISG (which has since then come roaring back to relevance). The standard was never widely promoted and other than discussion of a pilot between what was then Palm Digital and Random House, I do not believe it was ever actually adopted.

    Fortunately, I think that may soon change. I recently spoke with the leadership at BISG and I think that there is a will to begin pushing this standard again. As electronic sales of content explodes, it’s relevance is that much greater.

    Not only do retailers have wildly varying reports, but many of them are not even consistent in their report format from month to month. For example, the “units sold” column may be the first column in May, then the 4th column in June, making any kind of automation next to impossible.

    Thanks for mentioning it – that much more incentive to bring it back to life!

  5. I have made several purchases from outside the US to different ebook resellers and not had a problem. It is difficult to get books in English in Spanish speaking countries. Of course I use paypal for purchases, that may make a difference. If you continue to have a problem try downloading Opera Tor from Lupo Pensuite and see if that works. Paypal does have service outside the US but not in all countries.

  6. @David — Thanks for the background, that’s interesting and helpful. I just joined the BISG Board, and will be happy to help restart that conversation.

  7. there’s one piece of information so basic it’s essential
    — the e-mail address of the purchaser.

    does scribd offer that information to publishers?

    and does o’reilly pass it along to your authors?

    not only is this one piece of information essential to
    tracking the _honesty_ inherent in the infrastructure
    — it allows you to make a number of purchases and
    track whether every one is actually reported to you —
    but it also allows you to establish a connection with
    each purchaser, which is important in a variety of ways.

    if authors and publishers don’t demand this one datum,
    they are making a huge mistake that will bite them badly.


  8. @bowerbird:

    “there’s one piece of information so basic it’s essential
    — the e-mail address of the purchaser.

    does scribd offer that information to publishers?”

    God, I hope not.

    “and does o’reilly pass it along to your authors?”

    God, I hope not.

    With an opt-in system and some means of getting addresses back out the system later, *maybe* what you proposed is acceptable. Otherwise, I would sincerely request that book publisher and resellers — of the print or digital variety — treat their customers’ privacy with respect, please.

  9. Wow. This is fascinating. A great point about the need to provide better data access and reporting. Hear, hear.

    A few questions: what is the significance of “liked”? Does that mean that the reader viewed your doc? OR that they actually registered an opinion on it?

    Also, does Scrib’d offer this info aggregated in any way? (i.e. “6” people in the last 24 hours “liked” JRuby Cookbook and “10” people “added it to their favorite list”) Or do you need to just go through these detailed reports yourself to calculate totals?

  10. mark, do you think amazon doesn’t have your e-mail address?
    and your credit-card number? and lots of other info on you?
    why should only the darn middlemen have that information?

    we lost our privacy a long, long, long time ago. get used to it.


  11. Scribd does not share any identifiable information about customers who buy our documents. In your account profile, you can opt out of even sharing anonymous geographical information.

    @Dedi — there is a “Liked” button when viewing documents within Scribd. We can also see how many people viewed and/or downloaded the document. We also see the username of someone who explicitly adds one of our documents to their “favorites.”

    Currently that kind of information is just in text emails (though it’s quite standard, so easily parsed). There’s quite a bit that a publisher can glean from using the Scribd API also.

  12. andrew said:
    > Scribd does not share any identifiable information
    > about customers who buy our documents.

    neither, i would assume, does amazon.

    which is why they own the relationship,
    instead of you and other publishers…

    which is why they can jerk you around,
    and all you can do about it is to whine.

    authors, the internet allows you to
    connect directly with your readers.
    go ahead and divorce the middlemen
    (which, yes, includes the publishers).


  13. One serious limitation for Scribd seems to be that they only accept authors in the store from the US. I realise that it’s still beta and that it may change in the future, but there’s a world of authors who are really keen to sell their stuff through Scribd.

    Although there are POD services like Lightning Source which are good, and give a reasonable return, writers of more specialised documents, or even short stories, could both use and generate an international market. At the moment there is nothing similar available to European authors so Scribd, if it was first in the door, could clean up.

    If they don’t, it’s a matter of time before someone launches something similar to Scribd Store for European authors, which probably would split the English language market and limit both Scribd and the authors.

    If anyone from Scribd is listening to this, maybe they could take the point back into Scribd and see if there’s some movement in the offing.