Launched a little over a week ago with much media fanfare, Oyster is a New York City–based e-reading startup that offers consumers an all-you-can-read e-book subscription model for $9.95 a month. The company currently has a selection of about 100,000 titles, and members can read an unlimited number of e-books for as long as they subscribe to the service.
Oyster has raised $3 million in investment funding from Peter Thiel’s Founders fund, with additional funding from other investors. Although the company released its app in early September, it is available by invitation only at this time, although anyone can apply for an invitation. PW stopped by Oyster’s offices on 27th Street in Manhattan to see the app demoed and speak with the founders: Eric Stromberg, a product and business development professional (he launched Hunch.com before selling it to eBay in 2011); Willem Van Lancker, a designer who previously worked on mobile development and maps for Google; and Andrew Brown, an engineer who previously worked for Google and Microsoft. The company has eight employees, including five engineers.
All three founders have backgrounds in technology, but Stromberg said the idea for Oyster came from several late night discussions between the cofounders. “We came together behind a passion for reading,” Stromberg said. The careful rollout of the app is being done “to make sure we scale seamlessly.” He added, “We want it to offer a great experience.” Though the service has been likened to NetFlix, Spotify, and Pandora—“It’s access, not ownership,” Van Lancker said—Oyster offers a definitively new model for reading digital books. Stromberg said the company reached a million pages read after offering the app for little more than a week. So far, Oyster offers titles from several big trade publishers—HarperCollins and Houghton Mifflin are in; Penguin Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan are not—as well as “hundreds of indies,” Stromberg said. Oyster is currently available only for the iPhone but an iPad version is coming later in the year. Although it is adding more books, the service already offers a rich library of backlist titles.
Asked if the all-you-can-read subscription model can make money, Stromberg said definitively, “Yes, we can make money.” He added that months before the launch, Oyster was talking to agents and publishers to “work out a business model that would make sense.” Stromberg believes that “by not pushing a buy transaction on readers,” consumers are more likely to try a new book. “We think we can change habits and get people to read more,” he said, emphasizing that people have their smartphones with them all the time and “can take out their phones and read when they have a few minutes.” He added, “People who use the app are saying it’s bringing them back to books.”
Oyster allows consumers to “download the app, pay online, and read as many books as you like as long as you are a subscriber,” Stromberg said. Indeed, as long as the subscription is active, an Oyster member can take as long to read a book as he or she would like. There is no limit on the number of books that a member can read at once or on how long the member can access them. The app allows the subscriber to compile a personal library of titles and return at any point to whichever page in each book he or she stopped on; it also provides offline access to the last 10 books the member has opened online. The app offers a recommendation engine and social sharing (users can follow friends, post to Facebook and Twitter, etc.), and books read are posted in the app’s activity feed (though they can also be made private). Oyster also has an editorial team that offers book recommendations.
The company’s founders concede that they don’t offer a broad selection of frontlist bestsellers, but they continue to add titles, and they also say that’s just fine for now—Stromberg said the app is “NetFlix-like,” and encourages readers to “browse across genres and go deeper into categories like history.” He emphasized that Oyster “is not just about bestsellers,” saying that “people will engage a wide variety of books and the app recommends more than just the top 10 bestsellers.” Stromberg added, “We think we can bring new life to a lot of titles.” Van Lancker echoed that sentiment, saying, “We think we can broaden people’s reading horizons.”
Van Lancker said the company is focused on “building a clutter-free mobile reading” interface. Text in the Oyster app scrolls down as the reader progresses through each book, but the app still offers paging and a progress bar to show how far along the reader is. The app offers four “reader themes,” designed with complementary typefaces, background colors, and textures as well as the usual ability to easily enlarge the text. Asked if the company planned to double as a publishing platform and offer original content or whether it plans to offer visual books or graphic novels, Van Lancker said, “No, it’s not in our plans. We’ve got focus. We’re not trying to be everything. We’re not taking on anything that doesn’t make sense.”