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Summary:

I was skeptical that we’d ever see a Netflix for ebooks. Oyster’s launch on Thursday proved me wrong: It offers books that you’ve actually heard of, in a very well-designed app, for $9.95 per month.

Oyster

A lot of startups want to be the Netflix (or Spotify, Pandora, whatever) for ebooks. That is, they want to provide unlimited access to ebooks for a flat monthly fee.

But this is really hard to pull off, because services like this need enough books to make the prospect of paying a flat fee for them palatable. Publishers are reluctant to sign up their titles, in part because of the difficulty of paying authors when their books are viewed this way. So you have services like Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which contains over 400,000 titles — the vast majority of them self-published stuff that you have never heard of.

When I first heard about the New York-based startup Oyster last year, I was extremely skeptical. Backed by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and founded by former Hunch, Google and Microsoft employees, the company claimed last October that it would be the Netflix of ebooks. Then we didn’t hear much from it for nearly a year. I pretty much assumed the founders hadn’t been able to pull it off and I was not surprised.

I was wrong, though: On Thursday, Oyster launched on iPhone with over 100,000 in-copyright ebooks (i.e., not free public domain stuff) that users can access for $9.95 a month. It’s currently invite-only, and I’ve been testing the app for about a week now. The books are good: Real stuff you’ve heard of, from real publishers. The app’s design is fabulous: It looks and feels like a real app designed by a real tech company. Oyster isn’t perfect, but it actually delivers what it promises, and I recommend giving it a try.

First things first: How’s the content?

The app’s design is important, but if the content isn’t there, a service like this won’t work. So the key thing is that Oyster has the books: Over 100,000 in-print titles, plus public-domain titles that are not included in that 100,000 figure.

A warning: You will not find hot new bestsellers here. But you will find real books that you have heard of, published within the last decade, from publishers that you have heard of (if you follow that sort of thing). A sampling of the books available: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Best American Short Stories 2012, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The HobbitInterpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin, Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, Just Kids by Patti Smith.

Oyster

Publishers participating — i.e., making at least a few titles available, not their whole catalogs by any means — include HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Workman, Algonquin, Melville House, Rodale, Open Road, RosettaBooks, F+W Media and self-publishing distributor Smashwords. You’ll note that HarperCollins is the only big-five publisher on that list, though Oyster says it’s in negotiations with all the big guys. As for Smashwords, if you were wondering if Oyster is filled with self-published stuff you have never heard of, it isn’t: You can find a specific Smashwords title if you are looking for it, but Oyster will only feature select Smashwords titles on its home screen (as it only features select titles from other publishers).

Oyster wouldn’t get into details with me about how it’s compensating publishers and authors, and wouldn’t state whether newer, more well-known titles are getting better royalties than older ones. CEO Eric Stromberg told me, “We’ve had the benefit of other seeing other types of access models like this, seeing where they have done things the right way and where they tripped up, and structured our model in a way that is beneficial to content owners.”

Thank goodness for offline reading

If you want to watch a movie on Netflix while you’re on a plane, you’re screwed: You can’t download it for later. With Oyster, however, after you add a book to your reading list, you can access it offline. You only need an internet connection to download new titles. That’s awesome.

The app’s design is fabulous

The iPhone app is crisp, clean and intuitive to navigate. You can tell that it was designed by folks with a serious tech and mobile background: Cofounder and chief product officer Willem Van Lancker was a lead designer for the Google Maps iOS app. In my pre-launch tests, the app never crashed or froze up.

Oyster’s home screen offers Netflix-style browsing, with books’ covers arranged in rows in categories like “New & Noteworthy,” “Award-Winning Fiction,” “Book to Blockbusters” and “Popular Science.” To delve deeper, you can browse by genre (history, fiction and literature and so on) or search by title or author. When you see a book you want to read, you can either press a “play” button to start reading right away or press a little “+” icon to add it to your reading list.

Oyster Shutter Island

When you start reading a book, you can adjust the type size and screen brightness or select one of five typographic “themes” that change the font, line spacing, colors and textures of the reading screen. “It makes it a little bit more human and less geeky,” Van Lancker told me. It’s a small, pleasing thing that’s just one example of the close attention to detail in the app’s design.

Oyster

There are discoverability and social aspects, if you care about that

Just as I don’t usually care what my social network is watching on Netflix, knowing what my social network is reading is not a must-have for me in an app like this. Oyster does have social features: You can follow other users, see what they’re reading and recommend books to them. But the social features don’t overwhelm the app, and you can ignore them if you want to. That’s especially early on, when I don’t know anybody who has actually signed up to use Oyster yet.

Oyster does have a recommendation algorithm, but it’s not a big part of the app at launch. “As we gain insight into the preferences and activity of readers as well as the similarities among books, recommendations will become more highly personalized and will change over time,” Stromberg told me. To start, though, the company is relying on human editors to curate featured sets of books and titles.

Now for the not-so-good

Oyster’s largest limitation is platform: It is only available on iPhone at launch. Stromberg told me that he’s particularly bullish on mobile reading because people have their phones with them all the time, and that’s why the company went with iPhone first. In some ways, I can see the logic of this: Having Oyster on iPhone first makes it easy to dip into and out of books while you’re in transit, and the fact that you don’t need an internet connection to read them (once you’ve added them to your reading list) really does make it easy to dip in and out.

That said, part of me thought it would have made more sense for Oyster to launch on iPad first. I think that most people do most of their serious book-reading at home, and at home, reading on a phone probably isn’t your first choice. It means that right now you can’t really curl up with a book through the Oyster app.

Regardless, you won’t have to wait too long for iPad: That app is coming this fall.

Android users may simply be out of luck: Stromberg said Oyster currently has no “concrete plans” to launch on platforms beyond iOS.

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  1. IOS makes sense–I can’t see Android folks ponying up 10 bucks a month–it would have to hit $4.95 to go under the pain threshold. Of course the library would have to expand to basically the bulk of what’s released in paperback. Still, I like the concept.

    Weird how the ebook lending library available through public libraries is still almost impossible to use in a realistic manner–and I’m tech savvy. Either a product of ongoing publisher paranoia or just terrible design by typical government contractors

    1. John M. Davis: What does “realistic” mean in this sentence: “ebook lending library available through public libraries is still almost impossible to use in a realistic manner”?
      As a frequent reader of e-books borrowed from my public library–via both OverDrive and Kindle–I am uncertain what reality I am missing.

      1. Thomas Equality Leavitt Dean Thursday, September 5, 2013

        Experience varies with the library, but I use Overdrive with three different fairly prominent libraries (Santa Cruz, Alameda, and Santa Monica), and the selection of available titles seems very random and arbitrary. As well, it is patently absurd to have just about everything of interest continuously checked out, with the queue for availability averaging well over ten users (and thus, 20 weeks or more). … and it took the Alameda library staff quite a bit of work to get my cell phone to work with their software… to the point that they had me sit down at a staff PC to complete the process.

        I’m a professional IT Services Consultant, I’ve been engaged with the Santa Cruz Public Library since 2007. If I run into problems, I can’t imagine what the average end user has to cope with.

        … and beyond the usability issues, licensing restrictions (having to download some local Kindle titles and transfer them manually, etc.), the most problematic aspect of the situation with most e-lending libraries is the lack of functionally available content. What would you think if you walked into your local library, and 90% of the shelves were bare, with only the least interest items left available for checkout, and were told that the wait time before your title request became available was at least a month, if not several months? You’d think that was absolutely absurd, and go call for the head of the local library system, and the elected officials who put him or her in place.

        …and yet, this is effectively the situation with most library e-lending collections today.

        Right now, when I go to Science Fiction and Fantasy in the Northern California Electronic Library (Santa Cruz Public Library), I see three books, out of twenty, on the first page of listings, that are available, and two books, at least, with no less than 38 people in the hold queue. On page 2, I see 2 of 20. 18 patrons on hold, 24 patrons on hold, 29 patrons on hold, 20 patrons on hold, 17 patrons on hold. On page 3, 1 of 20 available. On page 4, we have a breakthrough, with 6 of twenty available… of course, all it takes is me checking out four of those and we’re back down to two available.

        How is this acceptable? It basically tells readers who bother to go through the cumbersome process of installing the software, registering, figuring out the interface, waiting for the web pages to load, etc., that their patronage is not valued. How many readers are going to take one look at this, and go, “Why should I ever come back here again?” That’s basically my response. That’s not even accounting for the titles the publishers simply won’t let the libraries have in a timely fashion (or at all).

        1. That’s because there are many battles between libraries, Overdrive and publishers right now over pricing models (charging many many times the price for rights to unlimited checkouts and “owning” forever, paying full price for one-checkout-per-copy, charging per checkout, etc). There are also some publishers that have refused to sell ebooks to libraries at all. Additionally, libraries have generally not received extra funds to buy these ebooks in addition to the physical items they already purchase.

          Kindle devices to not need to have Kindle files manually transferred from the computer to the device, Amazon’s website handshakes quite well with Overdrive services. However, with non-tablet nooks and other non-iOS, non-Android-with-Play-store (like those cheapo Pantech tablets at Biglots) you will have to do some manual transfer or it may not work at all. I’ve been watching the eBook software situation for years and it and eBook selections have only been improving more and more. Even my mother’s super-cheap low power Chinese Android tablet had no problems with installing the Overdrive app from the Play Store.

  2. Desmond Shepherd Thursday, September 5, 2013

    Thanks for the info on this. Just be careful about insulting the indie publishing market. Your reference to “Real stuff …, from real publishers.” is somewhat offensive. ;)

    1. Thanks for the comment. To be clear, that line — “Real stuff you’ve heard of, from real publishers” is not meant to be insulting to the indie publishing community. But just as Netflix and Spotify wouldn’t get very many users if they didn’t have quite a bit of content from big studios and labels, Oyster would also face challenges getting off the ground if it didn’t have that stuff. It’s the same reason that Amazon tends to promote the Harry Potter and Hunger Games in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

      Ideally, people are drawn in by the big names and then go on and find the lesser-known stuff. Note the deal with Smashwords, too.

  3. Nothing for Android. Ho hum. This company’s probably going to sell their software to Apple. Boring.

  4. Certainly interesting, but: passive VIEWERS are not at all the same thing as committed READERS

    Nivce that the technicals are being solved, but the market sounds like it won’t ever really be big enough to chase a la Netflix

  5. Many libraries offer the same service for ebooks…free.

    1. Ha! Why do you think this is only on iOS? They’re used to paying for things they can get for free elsewhere!

  6. Ever heard of Overdrive? Yeah, it is where you get a ton of books free of charge from your local library without ever going there. So, the problem is, who would pay for stuff they can get for free?

    1. Laura Hazard Owen Pete Friday, September 6, 2013

      Another commenter brought up libraries above, too.

      I am a regular user of the New York Public Library system, and both Overdrive and 3M (the two ebook systems it supports).

      However, I don’t think that they are a substitute for Oyster, or vice versa. It’s kind of like asking why you’d subscribe to Netflix’s DVD service when you can check out DVDs from the library.

      At libraries, hold times on ebooks are long — in my experience, almost always a couple of weeks even for older titles — and you do have to be fairly tech-savvy to figure out how to use the digital library distributors’ apps in the first place, link them up with your library card, etc. I wouldn’t describe the process as easy, exactly.

      I think the services can coexist, I don’t think one is an obvious substitute for the other.

  7. No plans for Android??? are you mental?

  8. Destination Infinity Thursday, September 5, 2013

    Releasing the books in the ePub/mobi formats (with expiry date for each book) might also be a good idea – It will enable people to read these books on their eReader. I wonder who does serious reading (other than reading short articles) on their mobile phones?

    1. I don’t expect to see Kindle compatibility with this any time soon, but the question about serious reading on mobile phones is a really good one. I think the company wants that to be true, but I think the sooner they release on iPad, the better.

  9. I would LOVE this on WP8 platform.
    Agree that iOS is a great place to start, but to not go to other platforms is short sighted.

  10. Thibaut Deleval Friday, September 6, 2013

    It sounds great but… with such a large offer you’ll definitely need some help to pick the right books. Gus is the answer! http://www.gusapp.com ;D

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