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The number of e-book subscription lending services appears to be growing pretty well continually. The best known in the English-speaking world are probably Scribd and Oyster, both with about half-a-million books available and with Scribd recently having announced the availability of audio books for, at present, the same monthly subscription charge. More recently, Amazon has entered the market with its Kindle Unlimited service, with more than 700,000 books available

These are not the only two services, however: other services have been established to serve other languages. In Scandinavia, there is Mofibo, based in Denmark but also serving the Swedish market and, in Sweden, Readly, which also operates an e-magazine subscription service in the UK. Also operating in Sweden is StoryTel, which has both e-books and audio books

Skoobe, established in Germany, has books in German, but also in English and in Portuguese and recently announced expansion into Spain. Scribd also operates in Spain, where there is competition with 24Symbols and Nubico (owned by Bertelsmann). Not surprisingly, given the non-physical nature of the operations, these companies are looking to expand in all kinds of directions. For example, the Russian service, Bookmate, plans expansion into Scandinavia, while the Spanish service, 24Symbols is in partnership with a Russian telecom, Beline, and may launch in Columbia (it already operates in Guatemala) and subsequently in France and Germany.

In other words, the subscription model is the focus of a good deal of experimentation around the world, with everyone in search of the holy grail of subscription service, that is, to become the “Netflix for books”. How many of these companies will fail against the competition and how many will get sufficient subscribers to survive is unknown and how many subscribers each service has seems to be a closely guarded commercial secret.

The only one of these services I have any direct knowledge of is Scribd, since I was given a free subscription following the purchase, I think, of some photo software. The first thing one learns about Scribd is that not many publishers have signed up to it, in fact, it consists, almost entirely, of the back lists of Simon and Schuster and Harper Collins. Still, these are two of the major publishers in the English speaking market and the availability of 500,000 books is not to be sneezed at. Additionally, Scribd has lots of voluntarily uploaded documents of various kinds, since it had its origins in providing just such a service, and stepped neatly into the e-book subscription business at just the right time. I haven’t used any of the ‘informal’ stuff on the site, so I can’t comment on its value.

The second thing one learns is that “back list” means just that: you won’t find the latest best sellers from these two publishers on Scribd. However, if you are prepared to wait a year or so, they will probably turn up. In the meantime, Scribd is excellent for a) discovering authors you haven’t read before, and b) re-reading favourites from the beginning of the author’s writing life. I hadn’t read much of P.D. James before, for example, but now I’ve been through the adventures of detective Adam Dalgliesh from the first book onwards.

Scribd presents its top page with a line of book-jackets for books that you are currently reading or have just read and, underneath that, various recommendations based upon the authors you have read, others in the same genre, New York Times best-seller list, and so on. True, you won’t find the latest Man Booker Prize winner, but you will find former winners if they have been published by either of these two publishers.

How many more publishers will sign up to these subscription services is unknown right now. I assume that they are waiting to see how it works out for those that have signed up and what they are betting on is that the income from the ‘long tail’ of books that are now available readily, when they may have been out of print for years, will justify their involvement.

Does this kind of service portend the death knell of public libraries? Mmm – a difficult question. We know that the majority of public library borrowers are solidly middle class and reasonably affluent and, if a significant number of such library users decide that they can afford $9.99 or thereabouts a month for access to more books than their local library is ever likely to have available, there may be traffic from the physical to the virtual world.

Will I renew the subscription that came to me for nothing? Probably, although I shall probably look around and see what is on offer from other services.

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