Are There Pearls in This Oyster?

Posted Monday, January 20, 2014 - 17:00
Oyster homepage

The offer is "unlimited ebooks for just $9.95 a month." This new service, Oyster (www.oysterbooks.com), has a fresh, clean, appealing interface. It runs on iOS7 devices (iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch).

The size of the collection is good, more than 100,000 titles. While the service doesn't focus on new or "front list" titles (they shoot for a 90-day embargo), mixed in with many classics are books that readers will recognize. At this writing, Oyster has about 800 publishers on board.

Users see the book cover, can read the blurb, can read the book, add it to their reading list, or share that they're reading it with Facebook, Twitter, or via email. But metadata is a little sparse: I couldn't tell, for instance, when a title was published. But my impressions are based more on browsing the website than taking the plunge and signing up.

This kind of "Netflix" experience feels like streaming, although in fact the files are downloadable ePubs, with DRM. The deal is reasonable as a commercial package: $120 a year for all you can read from an ebook collection significantly larger than that available from most libraries. 

What's not to like?

  • Cost: Well, existing libraries already offer an "all you can read" option (although that may be limited by number of copies or immediate availability) at a price considerably lower than Oyster's. The average public library funding is closer to $2.50 a month per household. 
  • No ownership: When you stop subscribing, you have nothing. To some, this matters not at all. To others, much.
  • No privacy: Oyster spells out the terms in frank and comprehensible language. "When you use the Services, you are consenting to the collection, transfer, manipulation, storage, disclosure, and other uses of your information as described in this Privacy Policy." Like many other services, that means that you are both customer and product. For instance, it's easy; you are even encouraged to sign in as a Facebook user. But then here's what Oyster collects: "This does not include your Facebook account password, but it does include your username, encrypted access credentials, and any other information that may be available on or through your Facebook account, including your name, profile picture, stated country of residence, hometown, email address, date of birth, gender, and the names, pictures, and networks of your Facebook friends." And of course, Oyster is keen to collect all kinds of information about who reads what, how far they get, and so on.
  • This is a one-person service, not a shared one. Someone over 13 (the minimum age) could grab Curious George and read it to someone else, however.
  • It's available for Apple products only, although it wouldn't surprise me to see an Android version eventually.

In some ways, Oyster is like a bookstore: a commercial model that connects people to books. There's nothing wrong with trying to make money, and this is an age of experimentation. In other ways it is not like a bookstore. There's no there there, you can't keep the books, and the service takes, and sells, a lot of information from you.

Is Oyster a threat to libraries? It may well be. Readers consider cost, collection, convenience, confidentiality, and quality of the experience. Not all of them will make the same choice. Many will decide that Oyster is the right one.