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Scribd improves reader experience with new browsing features

'The Last Horseman' by Frank Zafiro is one of about 100 titles by Spokane area authors that are available on Scribd.
'The Last Horseman' by Frank Zafiro is one of about 100 titles by Spokane area authors that are available on Scribd.

On Thursday, August 7, the ebook subscription service Scribd unveiled new browsing features intended to make looking for reading material on their site more personalized and more like going to a local library or visiting a brick and mortar bookstore. The improved browse features should make it even easier than it was already for more than 80 million people around the world who use the service to find great books in every genre.

According to Lyndsey Besser of Scribd, "We’ve rebuilt Browse from the ground up marking the first time a commerce company has digitalized the act of browsing e-books to create an experience that resembles what one would encounter in their neighborhood bookstore – complete with staff picks, award winners and merchandising specials. What once resembled a warehouse of books, now features beautifully designed custom editorial layouts with curated collections tailored to each individual’s unique tastes."

Some people in the greater Spokane area may not be familiar with how Scribd works. The service allows readers to read selections from a collection of over 500,000 titles on their computers, smart phones and other devices for $8.99 a month. According to their "about" page, Scribd "[pays] publishers when a book is read as if the subscriber had bought it in a retail e-book store. Authors are paid according to their agreements with their publishers."

For about the cost of one paperback book a month, people can add as many titles as they want to their personal libraries. The site features award-winning novels, New York Times bestsellers, and selections from Oprah Winfrey's book club among titles in many other categories. Scribd also provides a way for readers on tight budgets to support local authors such as Patrick F. McManus, Jess Walter, Frank Zafiro and Colin Conway. Scribd features 42 of their books in their online collection. Some highlights include the first four Bo Tully mysteries by McManus, "The Zero" and "Beautiful Ruins" by Walter, "The Last Horseman" by Zafiro and Conway's short story collection "Little Bits of Violence."

According to an official press release, "Scribd, the leading e-book subscription service, featuring more than 500,000 titles including bestsellers and award-winners in every genre, today announced a reimagined way to digitally browse and discover books. Scribd’s new browse experience brings the familiar elements of browsing a neighborhood bookstore into the digital realm, from personalized staff picks, to shelves for every category and special interest niche imaginable.

"'Our goal with the new browse experience was to retain the same human touch that we have come to love about personal recommendations from a trusted friend, but use the power of technology to extend it to our catalog of over 500,000 books,' said Jared Friedman, co-founder and CTO of Scribd. 'The result is as if we’ve built every reader their own personalized bookstore, with the human touch readers love, that they are now able to carry around in their back pocket.'

"The foundation of the new browse experience is a proprietary category structure that allows readers to browse both at a high level, like Fiction and Literature, and a very niche level, like Biographies of Outlaws. ... Scribd’s category tree was designed from the ground up to best facilitate book discovery.

"To take organization to the next level, Scribd's in-house editorial team curated tens of thousands of detailed tags about books, identifying their subjects, locations, time periods, and aesthetic qualities. Using this rich dataset, Scribd created unique collections of books tailored to specific tastes, such as 'Arthurian Legends' or 'Private Eye Mysteries Set In LA'. These niche collections are then served up to readers based on their interests and reading activity."

"... 'Scribd’s subscription model does wonders for book discovery, because it eliminates so much of the friction that usually exists to begin reading a good book,' said Trip Adler, co-founder and CEO. 'Meanwhile our new browse feature alone is a huge step forward for book discovery. Ultimately we believe it’s the combination of the subscription model with our innovative book discovery offering that will create a magical experience for readers, and this is just the beginning of more to come.'"

On Wednesday, August 6, Friedman participated in an email interview where he discussed the new browsing features and explained more about the merchandising specials Besser mentioned. In a brief question and answer session, he wrote about how he hopes the new browse features will improve the experience for Scribd subscribers and encourage them to read more. The Q and A is transcribed below. The questions were written shortly after signing up for Scribd's one-month free trial to learn more about the service.

Brian Triplett: The Scribd site is already well designed and easy to use. How will the new Browse features improve the experience for your subscribers?

Jared Friedman: Thanks, we love the overall look and feel of Scribd as well and we’ve been updating it significantly over the past few months. We’ve seen firsthand that the subscription model encourages more browsing and readers are more open to trying new books and new authors so creating the best browsing experience possible seemed like and important step. The goal here was to create a next generation browse experience and we started by visiting our favorite neighborhood bookstores. What we’ve built encompasses all that we know and love about browsing our favorite physical stores and brings it into the digital realm – complete with editor’s picks and shelves for every category and sub-category imaginable.

BT: I am already getting excellent recommendations based on what I added to my library. How will recommendations improve in the future?

JF: By combining data and algorithms with human editorial insight, we’re able to serve up far more niche recommendations to each and every user. For example, if you’ve read crime fiction/thrillers recently, as well as books set in Scandinavia, Scribd could recommend this custom collection – Nordic Noir – of various titles at the intersection of each of those categories. Because we now have a deeper understanding of the books’ DNA – subjects, location, time period, aesthetic qualities of books, etc. – we can also better explain why we are recommending certain books to you.

BT: What are you hoping to achieve for the company by offering more browsing options?

JF: Our primary goal is to create the best book discovery experience, and we think that the new browse capabilities are an important step in that direction. By serving up the perfect books to each reader we’ll get everyone reading more.

BT: Is this move intended to help Scribd appeal more to Amazon customers? The Amazon Kindle Unlimited program, which is kind of like a Scribd imitator with a less impressive collection of titles (to use an analogy, it is kind of like you are Netflix and they are Blockbuster Online), offers an award winner category and another category that is sort of like staff picks. Their search features are also kind of similar to what Scribd currently offers, although one could argue that Amazon's are less user friendly. Is one of your goals trying to be a better alternative to Kindle Unlimited?

JF: Amazon’s entrance into the space has certainly brought additional attention to subscription reading in recent weeks, but browse has always been important to us. We began building the product over six months ago and have made a major investment to scale the team behind this massive undertaking. We think that the combination of the best book catalog and the best discovery tools will create the best experience for consumers.

BT: How would merchandising specials work? Isn't everything included in the monthly subscription rate?

JF: The new browse features provide a number of opportunities for merchandising specials. The Editor’s Picks for example are a great way to elevate particular titles and authors. The important thing is ensuring the end product is still natural and tailored to each individual.

BT: Do you have plans to branch out into other related areas such as offering audiobooks to your subscribers?

JF: Our long-term vision is to build the world’s digital library. To us, this means including more than just books and eventually expanding into all kinds of content.

BT: According to your website, 80 million readers use Scribd. Do you expect that number to increase after people try out the new features?

JF: That’s correct, worldwide we have more than 80 million readers visiting the site monthly. As we grow our product offering and our reading catalog we certainly expect to see additional audience growth.

Readers in the greater Spokane area who would like to try out the new browse features for themselves should visit Scribd and sign up for the 30-day free trial period. Not only is it a great way for someone to find out if the service is something he or she would continue to use, but it provides access to a huge collection of ebooks from over 900 publishers. New Scribd subscribers will probably enjoy how easy it is to find books and other content that will appeal to them. The service also provides users with a variety of tools that make it easy to read on the go, organize reading material and share what people are reading with friends.

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