Scribd Brushes Off "Piracy" Charge to Emerge as Social Publishing Leader

Last Updated Jan 14, 2010 8:01 PM EST

Way down in San Francisco's SOMA district, just a couple floors below the spot where -- until recently -- Twitter was headquartered, another startup, Scribd, is also angling to become one of the Internet's hottest companies.

In fact, in the emerging category of "social publishing," you could say that Scribd is already the world leader.

"People used to call us the 'YouTube of books' given all of our user-generated-content," says Tammy Nam, Scribd's VP of Content and Marketing. "But now, given the amount of professional content we have, we've become more like the 'Hulu of books.' Plus we've added ecommerce."

Scribd, which was founded in 2007, hosts more than ten million digital books* and attracts close to two million readers from around the world each day (40-50 million per month), according to Quantcast.
The "social" in Scribd publishing refers to how easily content can be shared via Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, where they are roughly 5 million embeds per month currently.

It precsiely this kind of sharing that has caused some controversy to surround companies like Scribd. Attributor, which monitors the web for illegally posted content, is just out with a new report today, in fact, that found what may be up to three million illegal downloads of 913 books in Q-4 2009 from four sites, including Scribd.

Several publishing industry sources I checked with indicated that these figures should be taken with a large grain of salt, however, since it is unclear that free downloads of books (like music) automatically dampen sales.

Nam says she considers such reports, which have dogged Scribd for some time, as blown out of proportion. "We provide the best copyright protection out there by far," she says. "And let's face it. Publishers would not be trusting with their crown jewels if we didn't."

Strong copyright protection is indeed one of the features baked into the Scribd model.

"Meanwhile, we want to attract as much of the world published work as possible," says Nam. "And professional publishers, like Wiley, Simon & Shuster, and O'Reilly, are joining so rapidly, we frankly could never have anticipated just how fast this is happening."

Scribd's core translation technology turns virtually any file (Word, PDF, ePub) into an easy-to-read, searchable, interactive web document in minutes. Copyright and DRM rights remain with the content owner.

Should readers wish to purchase a book in the Scribd Store, 80 percent of the proceeds go to the content owner. But, while sales of digital books are a "nice-to-have" in today's publishing industry, it is the viral marketing aspect of the Scribd community that is probably driving the more than 150 publishers that have signed up to date.

After all, a passionate community of millions of readers who actively share their favorite books with friends over social networks is exactly the kind of free Web 2.0 marketing muscle that money can't buy.

"Nobody else is connecting authors and publishers to readers the way we do," says Scribd spokesperson Michelle Laird.

Nam describes Scribd as a "Long Tail" play, with the middle section (between best-sellers and tiny niche markets) as the company's sweet spot on that spectrum. With the current rate of 200,000 titles published per year, this is a startup that is already more or less equaling on the web what the U.S. book publishing industry achieves with its annual output of physical books.

Since last October, Scribd has moved beyond books to publishing other types of media content, notably from newspapers like The New York Times. With its branded "media reader," Scribd is becoming the repository of choice for journalists like the Times' Andrew Sorkin, who posts source documents like court filings and other public records.

In the process, Sorkin has been able to use Scribd and its audience to virally promote his book, "Too Big to Fail."

As the traditional publishing industry and book markets continue to fragment during the transition to a digital future, this kind of initiative strikes me as more and more necessary if individual journalists and authors are to see their work find as large an audience as is necessary to sustain the work.

"I love our media application," says Nam, herself a former journalist at the daily metro San Francisco Examiner (in the 1990s), and a graduate of Northwestern's Medill school of journalism. "If we can play even a small role in the Renaissance of the written world, helping to make writing a sustainable activity going forward, I will be very happy."

*Scribd generally defines long documents as books; if they run to more than 100 pages, they are included in this total.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.