It’s been called “Netflix for books.”
But will it take off like the subscription TV and movie site has?
Launched in September 2012, Oyster developed an app for Apple devices that allows readers unlimited access to 100,000-plus e-book titles for $9.95 a month. Unlike the public library, which has only a few licenses for each e-book title, an unlimited number of users can read Oyster books at once.
The service is the brainchild of Willem Van Lancker, Eric Stromberg and Andrew Brown, who pulled in $3 million in seed funding in 2012 from several investors, including founders of PayPal and initial backers of Facebook. Oyster launched its iPhone app in September last year and went to market with an iPad app. Earlier this year, the start-up announced it had raised an additional $14 million and that it plans to expand the team.
Oyster made a conscious decision to launch the iPhone app first and the tablet next, and it chose to focus on creating a reading experience that didn’t try to duplicate the feel of a book.
“All the metaphors and carry-overs from physical books were still there,” Van Lancker said. “For me, it was really about how can we make digital books fantastic in their own right and the best they can be, and not trying to mimic their print cousins and predecessors.”
More users are reading books electronically. A January report by the Pew Research Center said that of the 76 percent of Americans who had read a book last year, 28 percent had read an e-book, up from 23 percent in 2012. (Only 4 percent of the respondents said they read e-books exclusively.) Pew attributes this jump in e-book consumption to the increase in people owning electronic reading devices. As of January, 32 percent of Americans owned an e-reader and 42 percent owned a tablet computer.
“The idea of a small price for ongoing access to a library of content seems a good one,” says Gregory Newby, chief executive and U.S. production director of Project Gutenberg, which in 1971 became the first service to provide e-books. Today, Project Gutenberg has more than 40,000 works in its digital collection, all of which are free to the public. The project sees e-book subscription companies as important players in a healthy literary ecosystem.
“It’s not for all people, nor for all content,” Newby says. “While I wish there was a more equitable solution to issues of longevity for content and livelihood for authors, I don’t bemoan this business model.”
But not everyone is cheering. The digital divide has been a hot topic recently for American Library Association President Barbara Stripling and her colleagues, who worry that those without the money to afford technical gadgets could be left behind.
“The importance of equitable access cannot be overemphasized,” Stripling says. “What we’re seeing is an increasing digital divide, where some of the underserved people in our communities may have access to a cellphone, but they don’t have the same access to information and opportunities that are available.”
Stripling says that libraries are not just homes to books. They are also houses of learning and resources for the community, she says. During the Great Recession, she notes, libraries also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of people coming in to use computers and apply for jobs.
Hiatt is a freelance writer.