Web-Based Applications: Issuu vs. Scribd Deathmatch

11 Apr

Just as soon as I did my last post about Issuu, a documenting sharing Web site that we’ve started doing some book previews on, I almost immediately came across Scribd, another site that provides the same basic kinds of online publishing services. I haven’t been able to find exact user/member/subscriber figures for Issuu, but supposedly Scribd is the largest of these sites with +50 million users and 50K documents being uploaded every day. So, I thought I would upload some of the same materials we’d put on Issuu and then track the results to see which one was generating the most views/traffic.

For the purposes of comparison, I’m only using view numbers from files on both sites:


Scribd Views

Issuu Views







Taking Charge



Home Technology






Hand Tools



Contemporary Math






On the one hand, it wasn’t  much of a battle—even with Issuu having a head start as we uploaded all these files there longer ago—as Scribd easily generated the most traffic (that is, in terms of document views). On the other hand, what does it actually add up to? By tracking click throughs—the number of people who went to our e-commerce site from the Scribd page for a particular book—I know that we didn’t generate a single sale from the exponentially greater amount of Scribd views. This confirms something I have long believed but have had much trouble explaining to other folks about their pet publishing projects: people will look at and/or download all kinds of stuff that they absolutely would not pay a single cent for. It’s the classic marketing dilemma: it’s not a matter of how many eyes see your product, it’s a matter of getting your product in front of the eyes that might actually buy it.

Most of our current titles with significant sales are textbooks that generate revenue through adoptions—that is, an instructor chooses to use it for a class being taught—and I’m just not sure how many instructors are cruising Scribd or Issuu looking for new texts for classes. In general, instructors get more than enough info directly from textbook publishers by way of sales reps, direct mail pieces and catalogs, and booth in conference exhibit halls. I wouldn’t say the Scribd-Issuu experiment has been a great failure or anything–after all, you never can tell when all that traffic may generate some key hit somewhere—but I would certainly encourage the tempering of enthusiasm with the idea that there is a direct correlation of traffic = money. Plus, the case of Issuu, whose viewer I like better than Scribd, we are using it at our e-commerce site so people who make it there can see samples from our books.

Another issue, though, relating to these sites is piracy. For example, if you use the search term “grisham” at Issuu you will almost immediately—this morning, at least—come across a pirated version of John Grisham’s The Broker, uploaded by eddypedro over a year ago on February 8, 2008. A similar search at Scribd shows that many pirated Grisham books have been removed but, at the same time, it’s still simple enough to find the full version of The Street Lawyer uploaded on October 9, 2008, by api_user_11797_kushdude58. For me, it comes down to a kind of philosophical dilemma . . . do you really want to use a service from—or be associated with—a company that allows piracy? Yes, I know both these companies will say they do everything they can to prevent it. They will say when publishers request it offending files will be taken offline. But, I mean, really, one of these Grisham books has been up over a year, the other one more than six months, and you’re telling me that there’s no program/filter/protocol for finding these copyright violating materials any sooner or more easily? After all, I can go to a doctor who has treated me perfectly well but if she/he lets prescription pads periodically “walk off” is that a doctor I want to use? Do I want to frequent a bar that consistently lets underage kids drink there under the guise of “well, they looked old enough” or looking the other way when some crappy fake ID is presented? There is certainly a place for document sharing sites on the Web, but as a publisher I’m pretty leery of how these services are being misused, especially in terms of the actual return they do (or don’t) provide.

[UPDATE #1: Since this post was completed this morning, the pirated version of The Broker at Issuu has been taken down although the account of the user who uploaded it is still active. See, that’s one of the things I just don’t get. It’s not just some tragic accident/misunderstanding that Grisham’s book wound up online—it’s illegal!—so why does that user seemingly get a pass on this?]

[UPDATE #2: In the hour or so since my first update to this post, The Street Lawyer at Scribd is now down as well.]



8 Responses to “Web-Based Applications: Issuu vs. Scribd Deathmatch”

  1. Jason Bentley April 11, 2009 at 11:13 am #

    It’s worth mentioning that Scribd is the only document sharing and publishing site with a working copyright management system. Every time Scribd receives an official take down request from an author, publisher, or copyright holder, we remove the copyrighted document and add the reference file to our copyright database. If someone tries to upload a document that our system identifies as one of the tens of thousands of works in our copyright database, the document is automatically removed from Scribd. While the technology is not yet perfect, we are constantly working to improve it. And as our reference database grows over time, our system will become even smarter and faster.

    That said, there’s no “master database” of copyrighted works, or any way to psychically prognosticate when someone is going to upload an authorized copyrighted work. The amount of unauthorized copyrighted content uploaded to Scribd is a tiny fraction of our daily uploads and the tens of millions of documents on Scribd. You’re always going to be able to find exceptions when you look hard enough, so it’s not fair to assume that running across an abusive user is an indicator that Scribd “allows piracy.” That’s simply not true. Scribd does not allow piracy at all, and we are constantly working to stay ahead of the curve.

    Try this analogy: would you buy a car from a car manufacturer that you know is the best, fastest car – even though the car manufacturer isn’t yet able to technically predict and prevent every accident that could possibly happen, any where in the world? Of course you would. Ford doesn’t “allow accidents” any more than Scribd “allows piracy.” We’re working hard to make Scribd usable by everyone in a safe and legal manner. That doesn’t mean we’re going to deny the world the benefit of Scribd technology on the backs of a few abusive users that ruin it for the rest of us.

  2. Mark Long April 11, 2009 at 11:35 am #

    Well, I’m unsure exactly how you’re defining a “working copyright management system” given that John Grisham’s novel The Street Lawyer has been in plain site at Scribd for over a year. The procedure you describe—we take stuff down at the request of actual copyright holders—is much like pawn shops re-selling stolen goods: it’s “not their fault” and is actually the responsibility of owners of stolen property to identify and recover their property. This puts little or no responsibility on document sharing Web sites (or pawn shops) to track where their inventory comes as opposed to those losing property.

    I mean, this self-scribed “working copyright management system” is not particularly robust, at the very least, if one guy like myself drinking coffee on Saturday morning can find all the Robert Ludlum novels uploaded by http://www.scribd.com/api_user_11797_jayu1985 by typing Robert Ludlum The Matlock Paper into the Scribd search engine.

    And, actually, there are databases of copyrighted works—or at least those with ISBNs. The most well known is called “Books in Print” and is a service through Bowker. Or, there’s another on I came across recently at https://isbndb.com/.

    I mean, really, with all the title/author/ISBN information that is readily available, you’re telling me there aren’t savvy programmers—at Scribd or elsewhere—who could write an app that would more effectively sniff this stuff out? I just don’t believe it.

    Until this is effectively dealt with, it’s a relatively easy question to answer. Does Scribd allow piracy? (Please note that I did not say “encourage” or “promote”) Sure. How do I know? Take 10 minutes to search through the site for works by one of your favorite authors.

  3. Jason Bentley April 11, 2009 at 12:19 pm #

    “The Street Lawyer” and the Robert Ludlum editions you came across were not previously in the copyright management system, but are now.

    Our analogies are a little tortured. 🙂

    The procedure I describe is not a wily Scribd policy, it’s a law in the United States called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA). The onus IS on copyright holders to monitor the marketplace for infringements of their content. This may be wrong in your opinion, but it’s the law.

    That said, Scribd’s copyright management system goes above and beyond the DMCA and blocks hundreds of unauthorized uploads each day. We could very easily hide behind the law and say that we don’t have to do anything to dissuade piracy. Under the DMCA, that’s true. But we don’t believe that’s right. And we’re acting accordingly.

    We are striving to create an online publishing service that anybody can use.
    Furthermore, our service is used by people and businesses that expect immediate publication in real time – and that is the service we provide. We see no reason why we should negatively impact the 99.8% of our users that follow the law so that we can launch comprehensive background investigations on every cake recipe and piece of homework they upload.

    I’ve already said, the copyright management system is in development and is not perfect – a point that you may continue to hammer home all you like. You can use whatever eccentric barometers you like to try to divine our intent but the fact remains – it’s the biggest step anyone has taken in this space.

    I’ll say this again: Scribd does not allow piracy. The idea of “well, despite your efforts, it happens anyway…so therefore you allow it” just doesn’t make sense.

    Thanks again for writing about us!

    • Mark Long April 13, 2009 at 5:39 am #

      There is much to like about Scribd’s service and its features; however, I think that a “copyright management system” that is fundamentally reactive—let us know when your work shows up here and we’ll take it down—as opposed to preventive—we constantly check our database via ISBN, author, title info from sources such as Books in Print or ISBNdb.com—appeals more to individual end users (who want to upload/download whatever they want) as opposed those publishers you seem to want to have business to business relationships with. (For more thoughts along this line, check out this recent article about Scribd succumbing to the “Napster effect” in The Times.) Certainly there’s not much more to be said about it on my end, especially if you wish to characterize a guy sitting at his kitchen table drinking coffee on a Saturday morning looking at pirated title after title as an “eccentric barometer” of this nascent copyright management system. I’m glad to hear Scribd feels it is not only following the letter of the law but is going way beyond that as well . . . but as a book publisher that’s not particularly comforting. Perhaps, just perhaps, a system this like—despite all the bells and whistles (excellent ones at that)—just isn’t ready for prime time until it can show it can effectively regulate the content uploaded to it.

  4. Alan Hart November 4, 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    Please note ScribD and others are just as likely to catch criticism and loose traffic and usage if they make it any more dificult then it needs to be to upload your own legal content.
    May I suggest that Mark’s suggestion of monitoring all posts against one or two of the ISBN databases be implemented, but that a hit simply e-mails the copyright owner of record to the fact that there work was and is published on your site. If they fail to reply I would think you have done your due diligence.
    Include three links on your message. One to conveniently allow them to acknowledge your message implying that they do not object. One that requests this one posting be removed because it wasn’t posted by them but to allow the possibility for future posts. The third should be a quick link to instruct your site to add this material to your copyright management removal system so that it can never be posted without first convincing you to allow it.

  5. Manoj Ranaweera November 4, 2009 at 11:45 pm #

    I run UK based http://edocr.com. Whilst we do not have a sophisticated system, we do also remove copyrighted material when prompted. However, we are attracting less copyrighted material when compared with other providers, as our focus is on businesses and not ebooks, etc. We are very much a marketing channel even though some community members continue to use us as a knowledge distribution network.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on edocr.com

  6. Disco Lights · November 3, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    I always love the novels of John Grisham, they are full of suspense and surprises `

  7. Doyle Mckenley June 23, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    You made various good points there. I did a search on the theme and found the majority of people will agree with your blog.

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