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No, seriously: Oyster comes pretty close to being a Netflix for ebooks

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A lot of startups want to be the Netflix (s NFLX) (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 (s GOOG) and Microsoft (s MSFT) 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 (s AAPL) 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.


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 (s GOOG) 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.


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

23 Responses to “No, seriously: Oyster comes pretty close to being a Netflix for ebooks”

  1. Elizabeth Eshelman

    I would love to see this available on an e-reader. I’m trying to minimize rather than increase the amount of time I spend looking at my phone screen.

  2. The library Overdrive system is a mess: horrible to navigate, no recommendation algorithms beyond “what’s popular”, limited availability of hot titles, and OMG the software is like a mediaeval fortress designed to keep potential users out! I’m a librarian, and I only ever use it for the sake of familiarity when offering support. An alternate app with lots of content would be welcome, but I don’t know if a subscription service is the best market option.

    Not so sure about whether Oyster will become a household name. The most important thing for me in a reading website/app is discoverability and recommendations. If I find something I’m nearly sure to love, I’m happy to pay for it. I’m much less interested in wasting time surfing a mess of undifferentiated titles, even if I’m doing it for cheap.

    I wonder if Oyster did research into the market habits of ebook readers and purchasers? I suspect that readers have a lower tolerance for a jumbled catalogue than viewers (i.e. Netflix users) because of the higher time committment involved in reading a book vs. viewing a film. I guess time will tell…

  3. booknerd816

    I’m a voracious reader and I explored Oyster over the past few days – I have to say I found the app really disappointing. They offered a few hand-picked noteworthy books, and filled in gaps with public domain books I could easily find free elsewhere. Not a single good book from 2012 or 2013 in sight; and for most authors they will have ONE book, but no others. Reading on the iPhone is just awful – especially since Oyster makes you scroll down to up, which is brutal on the eyes. I’m going to cancel my membership and go back to my eReader; Oyster has a really long way to go before I’d be willing to pay for this service.

  4. William Wallace

    What a stupid comment, sorry… Apple people are idiot enough to pay $10 per month or Android people are cheap SOBs that need cut rate deals. It’s more likely the developers looked at the device THEY used and designed to that…

  5. IOS only? Well I suppose if you only want your customer base to be those making up less then 25% of smart phone users then that’s the way to go. But surely only a moron would limit their customer base? Ah I see, you’ll be selling you’re app to Apple…

  6. Jindo Fox

    Looks nice, but I’d really need to speed up my reading speed in order to make $10/month pay off. For me, it makes more sense to just buy the books that interest me.

    Library loan is a lot better than it once was if your library uses the Overdrive app, but selection and availability leave a lot to be desired.

  7. 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?

    • 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.

  8. 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?

    • 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.

  9. Jeff Yablon

    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

  10. Desmond Shepherd

    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. ;)

    • 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.

  11. John M Davis

    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

    • 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.

      • Thomas Equality Leavitt

        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).

        • 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.