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Scribd borrows a page from iTunes

May 18, 2009|Alex Pham

Scribd is proposing to do for books what iTunes did for music -- let readers buy only what they want to read.

Eight years ago, Apple Inc. turned the music industry upside down when it launched iTunes, an online music store that let listeners cherry-pick one or two songs instead of having to buy the whole album. Starting today, Scribd is giving readers the option of buying content, including paying a few dollars for a chapter or two from a travel guide or a how-to book.

That's just one example of the flexibility that digital book purveyors are experimenting with as printed content migrates to the digital format. Another is the pricing model. Paperbacks have largely been priced at about $10 to $15, while hardcovers are $25 to $30. With digital books, that price could be any amount. Scribd just takes 20% of whatever price publishers and authors set for their works. The rest goes to the writer or publisher. Some authors, for example, are releasing their books on Scribd for $2.

One of them is Kemble Scott, a 46-year-old San Francisco writer whose first book, "SoMa," was published as a trade paperback in 2007. For his second book, "The Sower," Scott eschewed print and decided to debut his novel on Scribd as a $2 digital book.

Scott chose the digital route for its immediacy. His thriller includes a number of contemporary references such as swine flu and Susan Boyle, a Scottish singer who rose to media stardom on the wings of YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. "Publishing a book the traditional way can take a year to 18 months from the time you find a publisher to the time it ends up on store shelves," Scott said. "Now I can publish a book instantly that makes the most contemporary pop culture references of the day."

As for the $2 price, Scott said he and several other authors on Scribd thought the amount would be low enough that readers partial to print would take a gander with books on a screen. (Readers can also purchase books in a format that can be printed.)

"We realized that if we want people to try something new, we had to price it appropriately," Scott said. "We felt $2 puts it in the realm of an impulse buy. Paperbacks were invented during the Great Depression as a low-cost option. Now we're in the Great Recession, so we decided to give people a price break."

Still, at $2, Scott will make more money per copy than he did with his first book, priced at $15. His contract for "SoMa" gave him 7.5% of the cover price for each copy sold, or roughly $1.12. His contract with Scribd for "The Sower" gives him 80% of $2, which is $1.60 per copy. The question is whether Scribd will be able to push the kind of volume on its website that a traditional publisher can through bookstores.

Scribd's chief executive and co-founder, Trip Adler, believes it can. The 2-year-old website already has 60 million unique readers a month, Adler said. Until today, the site has been primarily supported by ads. Writers have uploaded millions of documents for anyone to read, including family recipes, original music scores, academic research papers and doctoral dissertations and even original novels.

Until today, access to those works had been free. But Scribd, like other digital book players such as Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Sony Corp. and O'Reilly Media Inc. (which put their entire catalog on Scribd), is seeing how digital distribution can transform the publishing industry's business model.

Scott sees opportunity in digital publishing. "With print, my income was limited by the number of runs the publisher made," he said. "Online, it's limitless."

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alex.pham@latimes.com

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