8 Ways Oyster Books Can Rule the Ebook Subscription Market

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In the six months since its debut, the $14 million Oyster ebook subscription platform has yet to take off. What’s lacking? What could be improved?

Editorial by Andrew Pantoja

Oyster EbooksYou “watch Netflix” and “listen to Spotify.” But do you “read Oyster?”

Oyster Books, the ebook subscription service is, along with Scribd, one of the first serious competitors in the ebook subscription market. Oyster provides unlimited access to over 200,000 books for $9.99 a month. Sound familiar?

Oyster is the self-proclaimed “Netflix of books” — an apt description, easy enough to explain to friends and family.

But has the casual reader heard of it yet? Chances are probably not. Subscription numbers are not public but a glance at the number of Facebook app users is telling.

Netflix and Hulu both have over 1 million Facebook app users. Spotify has over 10 million. Oyster has just “5,000+” users.

Suffice it to say, Oyster has yet to take off. But given the success and popularity of the all-you-can-eat media platforms it emulates the future could be bright. So how does Oyster become a household name?

Six months since their invitation-only debut, Oyster has doubled their offering of books from 100,000 in September to 200,000 as of March. The easiest way to be taken seriously is for Oyster to continue their push for more books striking deals with as many publishers as possible. Most recently, thousands of new titles were acquired from 11 Perseus Books Group imprints. But that’s only the beginning.

After exploring the platform for a full month (Oyster provides new users with a free one month trial) it’s evident that changes and enhancements, beyond more content, are necessary if Oyster is to become a real player.

Here are, in my opinion, eight ways Oyster Books can turn the page and get people to “read Oyster.”

1: Add more and more books

It is commendable how a startup has managed to license over 200,000 ebooks in such a short period of time. But it’s not enough. Amazon sells millions of ebooks and the Amazon Lending Library provides access to over 350,000 titles, albeit one book per month. In order to woo readers you can’t have search queries come back empty. Sign up more publishers with favorable deals. Most publishers want to disrupt Amazon’s stranglehold on the market anyway.

2: Provide access to new books and best sellers

Don’t just add the dregs of publishers’ backlist, either. To matter in today’s market Oyster needs to become an avenue to new books.

Oyster can introduce a premium service where users pay an additional $10 a month for access to new releases and New York Times best sellers, and then limit the download of these frontlist titles to no more than four in a month. That would keep power readers satisfied at a book a week and savings of at least $30 dollars a month.

If Oyster continues with just backlist titles public libraries will eventually catch up in terms of technology and platforms. Nobody wants to compete with “free.”

3 Redefine book discovery

With unlimited access comes great responsibility (to sort and categorize your catalog).

Oyster should move beyond book recommendations by author and genre. “Enjoy books set in Brooklyn? Here’s what we have to offer. Do you like unreliable narrators? Here are 5 of those.” This may be hard to accomplish right away but investors have entrusted $14m to Oyster’s fearless leaders. Buy Small Demons (if its still on offer somewhere in the ether) — after all, its whole purpose was to make these sorts of recommendations possible.

If in a year’s time you can sort through 300,000 books by setting (place and time), by protagonist (sex, age, race, or character flaws) or — more impressively — by style of writing, Oyster will be headed in the right direction.

4: Enable social media conversations

Goodreads helped socialize reading but Oyster should take it to another level.

Oyster has already unlocked content allowing (1) copy and paste functionality and (2) exporting to mail, message, Facebook and Twitter. Both tools help fuel conversations.

The next step is to launch ebook clubs. Oyster should improve upon Amazon’s “most highlighted passages” feature by limiting those highlights to friends and followers, or to like-minded strangers in your Oyster book club. Those highlights can be annotated with comments and conversations that could live within Oyster or on social media platforms. And Oyster can join in on the conversation sharing news of the most highlighted/commented books each month.

5: Gamify reading

Anyone who is a current subscriber to Oyster has to be a serious reader. Reward these early adopters with features they will geek out about.

Oyster should provide subscribers with social media badges for all sorts of accomplishments. Get a badge for reading a book in under a week. Get another badge for your weekend reading marathon. Let friends participate in book sprints. “Who can finish that trilogy first?” Part of this will depend on the honor system but measures can be put in place to ensure people aren’t racking up badges without putting in the hours. The goal here, again, is to get people oystering.

6: Offer a blend of content

Netflix has TV shows, movies, standup specials and short shorts. Spotify has full albums, singles and LPs. Oyster has its fair share of novellas and short story collections, but a blend of books and magazines would be a much easier sell to potential subscribers. We can only read about four books a month anyway. Throw in some “Oyster Originals” and some audiobooks and perhaps some coffee table books with beautiful vibrant photos for the iPad. A more blended offering will allow for a broader, more diverse potential audience.

7: Offer annual subscriptions

Oyster may be asking subscribers to think about books in the wrong way. When readers fall of the wagon, they set annual or seasonal reading goals.  The average reader is more comfortable with a years’ time to meet their New Year’s resolution of 10 books.

Instead of strictly $9.99 a month, sell Oyster on an annual basis at $99 a year as well – another familiar price point. Whether you’re a power reader or trying to get back in the saddle an annual subscription provides the flexibility you may need to sign up.

8: But don’t reinvent the wheel

Unlike Kindle, Nook, and almost every other ebook publisher and platform Oyster decided to have pages slide from top to bottom like a legal notepad. It’s unnecessary. Oyster introduced a new feature where a new feature wasn’t needed. We’ve been reading books from left to right for centuries. Oyster should save the originality for enhancements that enrich the reading experience. Bring back page flips!

DISCUSS: What do you think Oyster is doing wrong? What are they doing right? Is this all in vain? Will Amazon eventually unleash unlimited ebooks as part of Prime or another service? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Andrew Pantoja is Associate Publisher at Practising Law Institute (PLI) in New York City. He is on Twitter @andrewpantoja.

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.