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scribd logoScribd made some significant changes to their web interface today, opening up new browsing and book discovery options. While I like the concept overall, as an author with books listed in Scribd, I noticed something which bothered me.

Let’s start with the concept.

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.

I have to say they completely nailed this. The shelves are easy to browse, and the special niches were interesting. Mind you, not that finding more books to read in Scribd has ever been a problem for me. ;)

Here’s an example of one of their special interest shelves:

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Various categories had multiple shelves, and they appear to be customized to the reader.

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. For example, if a reader has read a mystery thriller and a travel book about Scandinavia, Scribd might suggest the collection “Nordic Noir”, a curated list of 21 Scandinavian crime novels.

The customization isn’t always the best. “Nordic Noir” shows up in my recommendations, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t read anything Scandinavian. “Private Eye Mysteries Set In LA” would have been a better choice, based on my reading, I think, but it’s a small quibble. It’s definitely a way to find something I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered.

Update: Just received an email from the folks at Scribd with further explanation of the curated lists.

Also, there’s a combination of personalized and fixed rows throughout each category and subcategory. Nordic Noir is curated by our editors so its being served up to folks browsing the mystery category regardless of if they’ve read about Scandinavia. But, that example shows the power of the human + algorithmic recommendations and gives a sense for what readers might start seeing.

Okay, so perhaps they didn’t use the best example in the press release. Or I was nitpicking. The clarification is appreciated, though.

All in all, I think their discovery engine has merit, if you’re a reader. However, as an author, I was disappointed. Note the screen shot below where you can filter by “All Authors”?

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Unfortunately Scribd’s definition of “All” and mine are different. “All” seems to be a subset of all contemporary fantasy authors based on an unknown criteria. I started digging further as soon as I realized I wasn’t on the list. I checked my tags. Yep, Contemporary. So I started scrolling through all the books in the category. Wow! There were a lot. I actually gave up before I even found my books in the list. However, as I scrolled, I noticed other authors missing, names you’ll probably recognize. Like Dean Wesley Smith, Kristin Kathryn Rusch and (drum roll please) Frank Herbert!

I get it. I’m still basically a nobody. But those three names are definitely not “nobodies.” A Rusch book actually appeared in one of the curated Fantasy lists, so I was surprised to see her name missing. As I scrolled through the list of “All Books,” I understood why they didn’t want to list all authors in the filter–it would be overwhelming. However, then don’t call the filter “All.” Call it what it is: Selected Authors.

Update: Gotta love the responsiveness of the people at Scribd. “All Authors” has been changed to “Top Authors.” Nice fix, guys. Thanks for paying attention.

Another thing I noticed. Very few self-published books show up in a prominent position in the shelves. There were a few, yes, but it’s possible to browse Scribd and not be aware of the presence of indie published works. Here’s what Mark Coker said on the Smashwords blog last year:

Scribd is going to provide an incredible level of support to Smashwords authors, and I trust every Smashwords author will want to be involved and support their efforts.

Based on what I saw in the new browsing/recommendation engine, Scribd still has a way to go in supporting Smashwords authors. Although, to be completely fair, as I scrolled through the list of Contemporary Fantasy titles, I added a few Rusch books to my library. Those additions did change my personalized recommendations to add more indie works. However, if a reader doesn’t dig deeper and sticks to the surface recommendations, those books could go completely undiscovered.

As I see it, Scribd and other subscription services should be a boon to indies because there’s no risk. Stumble across a bad book? No problem. Delete and move on. There’s little risk because it didn’t cost any extra to try the book.

Do I have any suggestions for improving support for indies? Yes, actually. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to set up a “Smashwords Selects” category. Or one for “Great Indie Authors.” If a reader wants to stick to traditionally published works, fine. She doesn’t have to browse the category. However, if she wants to try something different, the option is there.

There’s no reason Scribd couldn’t be an even better win/win for all readers and authors.

 
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