Scribd Is Culling Erotica Because Popularity Is Just Another Route to Failure

Fans of romance and erotica prove that nothing works on the damn internet.

Jul 2 2015, 10:00am

Cowgirl Romances (1951). Image: Wikipedia

For most media, the internet's just too crowded: the average game on Steam only sells 32,000 copies; one-third of Youtube videos have fewer than 10 views; in 2013, there were 4 million tracks on Spotify that had never been played.

However, there is one form of entertainment—older than all of these—where demand seems to be outrunning supply: romance novels and erotica. People, apparently, love them so much that on Scribd, where for nine bucks a month you can read all you want, people are reading so many romance and erotica novels that the service is losing money.

Scribd pays out retail prices to publishers and self-published authors for each book its customers read, and, as The Guardian reports, the service has decided to cull romance and erotic novels to try to bring licensing fees down. Rather than raise the price of its subscription, Scribd sent a letter to its publishers and authors explaining that they are going to "to adjust the proportion of titles across genres to ensure that we can continue to expand the overall size and variety of our service. We will be making some adjustments, particularly to romance, and as a result some previously available titles may no longer be available."

Scribd just showed that, at a certain point, a big user base and adequate pay outs can turn a big user base into a liability.

Mark Coker, the founder and CEO of the indie book distributor Smashwords, has long been a booster of Scribd, but he explained in blog post that its announcement means, "effective immediately, I estimate 80-90 percent of Smashwords romance and erotica titles will be dropped by Scribd, including nearly all of our most popular romance titles."

Just today The New Scientist ran an article under the title "Why the internet is giving us worse games, books and music" that explained how digital distribution has made a negative impact on the arts, pointing to the complete opposite problem.

"Digital distribution began with this real utopian vision of change," says James Allen-Robertson at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK. The internet was hailed as a means for artists to find their audience and audiences their artist. But that hasn't happened. "All these platforms have opened up access to creators, but now the markets are so saturated it's hard to be found," he says.

So here's the score: If the service is too expensive, like Tidal, people won't buy it. If the service doesn't pay out enough, like Spotify, the artists go broke and could (theoretically) leave en masse. If the service pays properly, like Scribd, popularity can break it. If a service works like Amazon, it pits authors against each other for a portion of a fixed money pie, not to mention Amazon's self-publishing exclusivity requirements, paid-by-the-page rules, or hostile way of dealing with publishing houses.

The Scribd thing is so weird, because, the way things used to work, demand would lead to scarcity, which raises prices. In this case, with prices fixed and supply endless, as consumption grew, Scribd didn't lower its payouts and so now it's lowering its supply. It would've made more sense to raise its subscription price but with Oyster Books offering an all-you-can-read buffet for $9.95, perhaps Scribd felt it couldn't. It's actually trying to do a worse job at giving customers what they want, by cutting its most popular service in order to survive.

It raises another question too: We're assured by services like Spotify that they'll pay out adequately once the user base is big enough. But Scribd just showed that, at a certain point, a big user base and adequate pay outs can turn a big user base into a liability.

Just when you think that the internet is coalescing, the West gets Wild once more. Seems like erotica readers just can't catch a damn break.