Throttled: Trying to figure out how Scribd defines unlimited* reading

For the last two months, my access to certain audiobooks on Scribd has been throttled at three audiobooks. After that point, most titles show an “Available on [date] message. For me,that date is right after my monthly membership renews. While I’m still seeing both audiobook and ebook content offered, the titles are extremely limited.

I am not alone in having this problem. I’ve received a number of emails from people letting me know of problems accessing content on the service. Posts on the topic on sites like Reddit and Mobileread confirm the problems. Most people complain of being only allowed unlimited access to only three to five books per month and some have even had downloaded content removed from their devices.

Scribd’s history of issues providing content:

How many books to offer as part of its subscription has been an issue for Scribd for some time. Back in February 2018, I wrote:

Originally, Scribd started off as an unlimited subscription service.  Upon finding that some users were actually voracious readers, in February 2016, the service removed a large number of romance books (a hugely popular category) and instituted content limits of 3 ebooks and 1 audiobook for the rest of its users. A few months later in March 2016, Scribd modified the limits again by introducing Selects, which made some books unlimited and others subject to the 3 ebook/1 audiobook limit. And finally, comics were removed the service’s catalog in January 2017.

Scribd’s current limits date back to the last change made in February 2018, where the service promised “to give you access to an unlimited* number of books and audiobooks each and every month!” Note the asterisk behind the word “unlimited”. That asterisk relates to a couple of clauses in the TOS that allows Scribd to throttle its users.

The first relevant clause is number 6 under restrictions:

You may not exceed usage limitations set by content providers (participating publisher or User);

The second relevant clause is in the same section:

Your subscription entitles you to access an unlimited number of books and audiobooks in the Scribd library during the subscription period. For a small percentage of Scribd users who consume an unusual volume of materials, not every book or audiobook in the library will be immediately available. Scribd reserves and shall have the right in its sole discretion to add, modify, withdraw or delay at any time any particular Scribd Commercial Content from access by you for any reason including, without limitation, based on the costs generated to Scribd by such content or the nature of your use of the Scribd.com website. Scribd makes no guarantee as to the availability of specific titles or the timing of their availability. [Emphasis added]

The terms “publisher limits” and “unusual volume of materials” does not seem to be defined anywhere in either its terms and condition or its help pages.

When unlimited means something else:

One of the biggest issues for users seems to be trying to understand what “unlimited” with an asterisk really means.

Scribd’s terms make it it crystal clear that they can limit a user’s access and even remove downloaded content for a device. What’s not transparent is how those limits actually work in practice, especially as users report widely different circumstances regarding how much content they can access before hitting limits. In a comment on a Mobileread thread on the topic, one user wrote:

I’ve given up trying to figure out how many books I get to hear before I end up getting throttled each month. Some months I get two books, sometimes three.

Read any online discussion on the subject and you will see a variety of limits users have encountered, as well as a number of reason for the limits, most suggesting the cause is either publisher limits, location or price. Which titles are read also seems to be a factor, with some suggesting there’s a secret list of titles that you can’t read too many books from. A number of users have said that they can read three audiobooks and one ebook before they are throttled.That’s ironic, as it sounds pretty similar to Scribd’s old three book/one audiobook system, only in reverse.

The biggest beef for users? Nobody knows for sure what the rules are. At least with Scribd’s previous rules, it was (somewhat) clearer what the limits were. Under the current system, there’s not a lot of transparency and that tends to be annoying for users of the service.

The question of value:

For many, this may make it difficult to truly assess the value of the service they are paying for. I don’t think anyone really expects truly an unlimited service for $8.99 a month (the same scenario has played out with Playster, the other “unlimited” subscription service). But depending on what you read and how much you read, the value of a Scribd subscription shakes out differently for different people and how many books are included monthly is a big part of determining that. With each of the changes Scribd makes limiting the content offered (such as removing romance books) triggers an exodus of people claiming they will leave the service. It seems that currently, many of the those who the most frustrated with being throttled are avid listeners to audiobooks.

For me personally, I still find value in the service. Since I boycott books priced over $9.99, even by reading one higher-priced book a month, the service saves me money.  I’d like to see more bestsellers as ebooks (lately audiobooks seem to be the predominant format), but I still find content that is of value to me.

However, if Scribd was my only (or even my main) source of content, I don’t know that I would be as satisfied. Some people might find themselves better served by a subscription to Kindle Unlimited (which includes both ebooks and audiobooks) or by investing in a paid, out-of-area fee card to a public library that loans digital materials (I talk about fee cards in this post).

The bottom line is that it is just too difficult for figure out exactly how much content Scribd is offering with its subscription service. It would just be nice to know what the rules are so we could plan our reading accordingly.

What do you think? Current subscribers, have you been throttled by Scribd? Former subscribers, why did you leave?

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