The World's Best Digital Book App Just Got Better

Credit: Courtesy Scribd

Scribd used to have a pretty compelling pitch. It's Netflix for e-books, charging members a $9 monthly fee for unlimited access to the service's roughly 500,000-book online library. It works on Android and iOS devices, as well as Kindle Fires. For anyone who reads at least two books per month, Scribd — as well as its identically-priced competitor, Oyster Books — is a good deal. But as of this morning, Scribd may have evolved into the proverbial killer app of the digital book industry, by becoming the first company to offer audiobooks for cheap. 

Scribd's members can now download or stream as many audiobooks as he or she wants from a library of 30,000 titles. And while that's not the most impressive number, it includes real authors whose books people might actually want to listen to, such as Cormac McCarthy and Haruki Murakami. The Hunger Games and Divergent books are in there, as well as a star-studded recording of the Bible read by Angela Basset, Denzel Washington, and others.

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According to Scribd CEO Trip Adler, there really aren't any strings. There's no limit to the number of audiobooks you can download (though multiple titles would quickly fill most mobile devices), and no need to listen with an active Internet connection, unless you're streaming the audio. Like the company's print books, the audio titles are compatible with iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire devices, as well as computers, via a standard browser. The only requirement is that, for downloaded files, you sign into the app at least once every two weeks, so Scribd knows what you've been listening to, and how much it should pay publishers.

And even if you aren't sold on the current lineup of audiobooks, here's the non-catch: Scribd isn't charging extra for its new audio component. The service will remain at $8.99 per month, for print and audio access.

There's real ambition in this launch, so much so that, during the pre-launch interview with Adler, we kept looking for deal-breaking complications — invasive digital rights management (DRM) code that kills off audiobooks after a set period, or a limit to how many titles you can listen to in full every month. Or even a terrible collection of titles, the sort of quantity-over-quality approach that's made Amazon's Kindle Lending Library such a missed opportunity. Amazon's library, which is free for Prime members, doesn't include audiobooks, but apart from a few popular books, such as the Hunger Games trilogy, it's a wasteland. (Amazon rolled out its own Unlimited service, with more and better titles for $10 per month, which wasn't free for Prime members.)

But this is the real reason we gave Scribd a hard time (relatively speaking): Paying $9 per month for a wide range of all-you-can-eat audiobooks is unheard of. “This is the first time anyone has offered unlimited audiobooks for a flat monthly fee,” says Adler. While e-books are often available at deep discounts, audiobooks are damn expensive. That's not a complaint, but a statement of perfectly understandable fact. E-books are actually easier to produce than their print counterparts, but most audiobooks are basically a boxed set of recording sessions with a professional actor. Even if engineers aren't involved, and the performance amounts to an underpaid thespian intoning into a tiny voice recorder, he or she needs a paycheck for hours of work.

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The first Hunger Games novel is a perfect example of the pricing disconnect between e-books and audiobooks. The Kindle e-book is currently $5 on Amazon. But it's also the shining star of Amazon's Kindle Lending Library, meaning it's free for Prime members. You can also become an Audible member, and pay $15 to listen to one book a month, or $23 for two. (The Audible audiobook costs $24.) A single book that's virtually free in print, is the price of about two full music albums as audio. And Audible dominates the digital audiobook market because, compared to other services, or outright purchases, those monthly rates are a bargain.

That's the current state of audiobooks, prior to today — prices that seem inflated next to e-books, or even video streaming services like Netflix ($8 per month). Scribd is in a position to change that, and attract a wider audience. Because for every curious would-be first-time listener out there, there are tons of long-time cheapskates.