Oyster, The Netflix of Books

The latest buzz from the publishing world has been the release of an app called Oyster (aka the “Netflix of Books”). At $10 a month, this subscription service gets you (at the time of this post) access to about 100,000 titles. These titles are all from the only publisher on board right now, HarperCollins. There is no limit on the number of books that a person can view in a month. It’s more expensive than Amazon Prime but has better borrowing terms (Kindle Library allows for only 1 book per month). It’s only available for the iOS right now, but I’m sure they’ll be rolling out other platforms in the near future.

To a certain extent, the app was inevitable; if people can rent movies, then why not books? It was a matter of getting the content providers (namely, publishers) on board with the idea. A few years ago, this notion would have been unthinkable and seen as an impediment to the development of the eBook market. The push was to buy the books, not to borrow (or even rent) them. So what has changed?

I believe the factor that has changed is the value of user data; specifically, the collection of data related to reading habits. Amazon doesn’t hide the fact that it tracks the reader from how much of a book or article is read to how long people read to what parts of a book slow people down. But their numbers are proprietary, their giant industry trump card, and the fuel that is helping them make decisions about their own foray in the publishing world. This is the industry intelligence that the publishers who are not Amazon are lagging behind on.

In the past, there have been signals from the publishing world that they would look more favorably upon libraries if we allowed them to collect the same information about readers from eBook borrowers. They have been resoundingly turned down for a good number of reasons, the first and foremost being that of patron privacy. Amazon skirts this principle by having the transaction go through their website and making the person subject to their terms and conditions. The Nook is in unstable territory as its fate rests with Barnes & Noble and their storefronts. Apple isn’t as much of an option as their bookstore has gone soft. So, what kind of options are left for them?

I think that Oyster has great potential for the consumer by filling a desired niche, but I think that one of the main compelling reasons for publishers to provide their material is to collect their own data about readers. What can be learned about their audiences represents a gold mine for future business decisions, marketing forecasts, and targeted advertising that will help keep the publishing industry afloat in the coming years. It’s not that the titles aren’t worth trying to sell anymore, it’s that the reader information has become more valuable. The new economy isn’t so much about the product, but about how much you know about the people who use it.

EDIT: I originally wrote that it was cheaper than Amazon Prime. It’s not. I corrected that line. Thanks to Frank for pointing out my simple math error.  

9 thoughts on “Oyster, The Netflix of Books

  1. I’d also say it’s hard to know what, exactly, OYSTER purchased and is lending. Without knowing that, we cannot say that OYSTER is doing what libraries do, or are willing to do. And, with a different focus than libraries, terms that libraries don’t want may be terms that OYSTER finds financially feasible.

    For example, this FAQ indicates that OYSTER is fine with licensing, fine with it not being first sale, and perhaps also fine with limitations on the number of times something is borrowed: “I saw a title I was interested in – now it’s gone. Why? A title may be removed from Oyster for several reasons relating to the rights of the book. If a title is removed, where possible we always provide notice to users in advance. Readers who have an expiring title in their library will be given ample notice and time to complete the book, if they choose.”

    It’s also possible they are willing to do something closer to the European model, with a structure similar to public lending rights. Without the underlying contract, there is no way to know what is happening.

    So far, I really enjoy it. It’s easy to use and download. What it doesn’t have (surprise, surprise) is a strong search engine, a full range of genres, etc. After the initial “oh, look, books” either those things will have to improve (this is beta) or it’s going to be the system of someone finds a book elsewhere and reads it thru OYSTER.

    • I’m not doubting the value it has to the reader, I’m just wondering what changed to make this come about and reader information (to me) is key. It’s something that publishers have wanted for years and this is the way to get it.

  2. The challenge of collecting customer information is being able to make sense of all the data you collect.. It’s a daunting task and I am not certain publishers , or most entities, will be able to do it well.

  3. OYSTER will serve the niche of people who, for whatever reason, feel they much pay to borrow something that they could get for free at their public library. It’s a good idea, driven by our consumer culture.

  4. Pingback: 32 Library Stories You May Have Missed in September - OEDB.org

  5. Pingback: 32 Library Stories You May Have Missed in September | web solutions

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