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Summary:

Ebook subscription service Oyster has added about 100 titles from Disney and is breaking out a separate children’s section. But most of those books are text-based, not illustrated.

Oyster children's

Oyster, the New York–based startup that aims to be the Netflix for ebooks, has added about 100 titles from Disney Publishing to its service and is rolling out a new children’s vertical Wednesday.

Oyster, which launched last September, charges $9.95 per month for unlimited access to a library of over 100,000 in-copyright ebooks and has iPhone and iPad apps. (The company hasn’t publicly updated that 100,000 figure since launch.) Android apps are slated for later this year.

Along with the Disney books, which feature properties like Toy StoryCars and the Disney Princesses, the vertical will include titles that were already available on Oyster and were either lumped in under “Young Adult” or weren’t categorized. Among those are series like Lemony Snicket and Beezus and Ramona (HarperCollins), Boxcar Children (Open Road) and Curious George (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In all, CEO Eric Stromberg said that about 10,000 children’s and young adult ebooks are available on Oyster.

When people hear “children’s books,” they often think “picture books,” but that’s not really the case here: Almost all of the children’s titles on Oyster are primarily text-based, not picture books. “The focus for us is more on the short chapter-book side,” Stromberg told me, though he noted that Oyster does have a couple of picture books — like Curious George — available.

Several companies are trying to offer children’s ebook subscriptions. One of those offerings is Amazon’s Kindle FreeTime Unlimited, which starts at $2.99 per month and offers unlimited access to a library of children’s ebooks, apps, movies and games on Kindle Fire tablets. Kindle FreeTime Unlimited includes 1,600 ebooks, including around 100 Disney titles. Disney used to offer its own ebook subscription service, but ended it.

Oyster doesn’t plan to break out a separate children’s product for a separate subscription fee. Rather, Stromberg said, “we’re going to continue to build [the service] as a broadly compelling offering,” and parents can share accounts with their kids.

Oyster has raised $17 million from Highland Capital Partners and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund. Stromberg said the company will hit 30 full-time employees in a few months. He wouldn’t share how many subscribers Oyster has.

This piece was updated to note that the 10,000 figure includes both children’s and YA ebooks.

  1. The limited number of picture books is a killer for children’s books. I can only assume Oyster is using basic ePub-formated books and not fixed-layout ePub as defined here:

    http://www.idpf.org/epub/301/spec/epub-publications.html#sec-package-metadata-fxl

    “But this principle doesn’t work for all types of documents. Sometimes content and design are so intertwined they cannot be separated. Any change in appearance risks changing the meaning, or losing all meaning. Fixed-Layout Documents give Authors greater control over presentation when a reflowable EPUB is not suitable for the content.”

    Apple is ahead of the game there. iBooks supports fixed-layout ePub and the iBooks Author app lets almost anyone create a book with a predictable layout, including pictures.

    It’s great that ePub is giving digital publishing a standard to rally around much as PDF did for print. But it’s dreadful that the standards have been distracted by the whiz-bang pundits who want audio-visual above all else, despite the fact that they’re very expensive to create and not really wanted by readers who want to read when they read.

    Those developing ePub standards should have begun by developing standards that allow digital books to do what print books have been able to do since Gutenberg. That means a rich and publisher-controlable variety of how text displays. Instead, even trivial features like tables are hard to do. Laying out complex poetry can be almost impossible.

    Reflowable features should be smart enough to create the attractiveness that typesetters have done in the past. That means the pictures are intelligently placed, rather than force a break to the next page or disappear entirely. It means widows and orphans are corrected. In short, ereaders should know how to display text attractively.

    In addition, all this silliness about readers choosing they own font ought to be set aside. They never wanted it in the past. They don’t want it now. They want a book to coming looking right for it’s theme. A dark Gothic novel needs a different font that a light comedy. And while the latest ePub now allows embedded fonts, many readers don’t support it.

    Companies such as Oyster need to insist that, as a minimum, ebook standards fit what print books have been able to do for hundreds of years. Then they can create and market attractive children’s books and not just dull-looking, word-after-word novels.

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