September 11, 2013

Oyster, a “Netflix for ebooks,” launches to much fanfare


Oyster offers unlimited access to over 100,000 books for $9.95 a month on iPhone and iPod Touch.

Oyster, a new book subscription app, launched this week to much fanfare. Already being called a “Netflix for books,” (by Mashable, GigaOm, the LA Times, and many more), Oyster works in much the same way as the video service; users will pay a monthly subscription fee for access to all of the Oyster’s books. Business Insider explains, “For $9.95 a month, you can download and enjoy titles from HarperCollins, Workman, Melville House, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boasting 100,000 titles so far, Oyster is still working to procure more publishing companies to add to its roster.”

So far, reviews have been generally positive. GigaOm’s review noted the attractive design, general quality of the books, and the important distinction that, unlike Netflix’s streaming service, once you add a book to your Oyster reading list, you no longer need an internet connection to access it.

The LA Times, while calling Oyster “promising,” struck a hesitant note, writing that Apple claims “1.8 million titles in its iBookstore while Amazon sells more than 2 million e-books. In fact, Amazon has four times as many exclusive e-books (400,000) as Oyster does altogether.” That Amazon number, of course, includes multitudes of self-published books that may or may not be what Oyster’s customer base is seeking. It’s worth noting that, for now at least, Oyster is only available as an iPhone app, and is not yet available on any other platforms, including the iPad.

In it’s own positive review, Mashable writes,

The novelty of the subscription model for ebooks almost overshadows some of the more subtle but significant changes Oyster is trying to make to the e-reading experience. Like Netflix and Spotify, Oyster doesn’t just provide easier access to content, but also aims to help users discover and share content. The books are organized into genres similar to Netflix and every user has a social profile in the app and can follow the reading activity of other users they’re connected to. There are also built in options to share books to Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram.…

At $9.95 a month, Oyster is slightly more expensive than Netflix’s streaming-only option. That is a better value proposition in the sense that you need only rent one ebook a month to at least break even, whereas you would need to watch multiple movies or show seasons a month on Netflix to come out ahead of typical rental prices in bricks-and-mortar video shops. Unfortunately, a Pew survey from last year found that just 27% of Americans read the equivalent of one or more books per month—digital or physical—which suggests the $120/year could be seen as steep price to pay for many.

For better or worse, the success or failure of Oyster may serve as the ultimate litmus test for whether digital devices increase the consumption of books—in the way that they might with movies—or undermine it.”

Only time will tell if Oyster can produce it’s own blockbuster version of Netflix’s House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, but Oyster is off to a promising start. Melville House cofounder Dennis Johnson, one of the first publishers to sign with the service, says, “Oyster is an idea whose time has come, and it’s being run by some impressive people who seem interested in a retail model that doesn’t necessarily rely on bestsellers. I.e, they see books as more than widgets. So we were pleased to be one of the first publishers they signed.”


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.