Oyster

I mentioned last week that I intended to do a review of Oyster, so here it is, because I know more than a few people who are curious about it.

The basics: It’s been described as like Netflix for books, which is fairly accurate. Their FAQ and help info is on their website.

  • It is currently iPhone and iPod Touch only: they’re working on an iPad version, and then expect to work on other platforms.
  • Cost is $9.95 a month.
  • They have signed agreements with HarperCollins and a number of smaller publishers, they are actively working on others. The current catalog is about 100,000 titles.

It is invitation only, but they are rolling out invites steadily (I got mine about 6 days after requesting one.)

My take: For my reading patterns (more below the cut) this is a worthwhile service for me right now (and I’ll note that I do almost all of my booklength reading on my phone). It may or may not be the right fit for you, or right now.

It is clearly a service in process: there are some things about the interface it’s taken me a while to get used to, and there are some glitches (described below) though none of them have been dealbreakers for me. Obviously, too, whether they have content you want is going to be a good question. (It is probably not the right fit for you if you only read in a couple of specific genres, or read a book or less a month from their catalog, or mostly read very recently released work.)

I’ll also note that I expect to use Oyster the way I use Netflix and Spotify: I take in a bunch of content (and love having the chance to try things out without having to store it – even digital storage takes management!) but I continue to buy things I know I want to keep or have access to even if licensing agreements change, or when I want to make sure the creators get encouraged to make more things like that.

The biggest note I’d make is that books you read are default public (you can mark individual titles private) in their sharing service. I am extremely weird about sharing what I’m reading with other people, and I wish you could default to making things private.

Onward in much more detail

Me (so you can compare)

  • I do most of my book-length reading on my phone, which is an iPhone 4. (There are a few things I prefer to read on the iPad, but a lot of my reading is while waiting for computers to reboot or load something at work, or in bed, and in both cases, the phone is a lot more convenient.)
  • I read a lot (3-4 books is an average week) and I read in a wide range of genres and subgenres. I read about half fiction and half non-fiction.
  • What I read is determined by current projects/interests, by mood, by amount of spare brain, and by various external factors (if something new has come out I want to talk to people about, if I need to read something for a specific event.)
  • I currently spend somewhere over $50 a month on ebooks, mostly via Amazon, and usually several of them are in the $9.99 range (genre fiction, various forms of non-fiction, etc.)

The last bit means that if Oyster fills a reading gap of 1 book a month for me, it pays for itself, and if it fills a gap for 2 or more books, then it’s saving me money. As above, I do still expect to buy plenty of books, both digital and print.

Other apps and services:

I use the Kindle app for Amazon books I buy, and I’m currently using Marvin as my ebook reader for non-Amazon titles (more on Marvin coming soon: short version, I like it a lot.) I was using Bluefire until recently, there.

I’ve attempted using Overdrive (the library loaning ebook service) but I’ve found it very frustrating for my reading patterns. Overdrive doesn’t quite have the balance of subjects I’m interested in (or will have a later book in a series, and not the earlier ones, or one or two titles on a particular topic, but not others), and I find I spend more time managing my reading than reading. And that’s not fun. Oyster doesn’t require me to manage holds, nor does it make me manage due dates and both of those things are worth money to me.

The service:

What kind of books? Obviously, it is in the publisher’s interests to encourage people to read just-released books by buying them – and if you read through the Oyster faq, it’s fairly clear that the licensing terms reflect that. This is not the place to go if you want books that just came out, or things that are on the best-seller list.

However, if you like reading books that have been out for a bit, or like reading in specific topics, or like reading in a wide range of fields or genres, it may be a perfectly fine fit for at least some of your reading. There are quite a few classics in the mix, and a wide range of genres, though representation from specific subgenres is a spotty (there’s relatively little Young Adult stuff, quite a lot of dystopian fic, fairly little paranormal fiction, a mixture of hard science fiction, very little space opera, some high fantasy, etc.) This is something I hope to see improve.

How does it work? 

  • You get an invite, and set up an account.
  • You will be asked to add a few books (it will apparently use these to suggest things you might like later) and it will set up a basic reading list for you.
  • You can then go and rummage for books. There are curated lists (which change monthly), genre lists (not yet clear how often these change)
  • You can add books to your reading list. When you find a book you like (either by browsing or by searching for a specific word/author/title), you tap on the cover, and it gives you more information about the book. You can tap on a little ‘play’ icon on the cover on that page to download it to read, or you can tap on a + sign to add it to your reading list or to mark it as something you’ve read.
  • When you want to read something, you find it in your reading list, and you open it by tapping on it. There’s a table of contents so you can jump to chapters, it tells you how many pages are left in the chapter, and you can move around the book fairly easily.
  • When you are done reading a book, you can mark it as read (and it will disappear from your reading list and go into the ‘read’ section of your profile) from either the book’s profile page or from the table of contents.

Spotlight lists: The September ones included:

  • Thoughts on Food
  • The End of Summer (entertaining and engrossing novels, they say.)
  • Visionary Lives (interesting biographies)
  • Shorter Stories

Genre lists include: (as of October 1, 2013)

  • Popular on Oyster
  • New and Noteworthy
  • Sweeping Histories
  • Critically-Acclaimed Fiction
  • Sports Stories
  • Business Essentials
  • Book to Blockbuster
  • Popular Science
  • Behavior and the Mind
  • Contemporary Fiction
  • Dystopian Sci-Fi
  • Travel Writing
  • Chillers and Cliffhangers
  • And a bunch more standard genres if you click through.

Each of the curated lists has 20-30 titles on it, so browsing through them is not too miserable. Their blog highlights some of the curated collections, so you can see what they’re including. (In my experience, these are pretty much like library displays: there are some things I like, some things I don’t like, but they work pretty well for me in finding something interesting. Your mileage may vary.)

What I think about how it works:

Things I like: 

1) It gives me books. I read them. I don’t have to manage due dates or holds. I like that part.

2) The download and reading process generally goes pretty smoothly (though there’s a few notes, see below)

You do need to have data access to download, but it will store the previous 10 books you’ve opened for you. I spent the weekend in Montreal (where I do not have a data plan) and was both able to open books easily, and to download new ones on the hotel’s wifi.

3) They give you a limited number of themes for reading, but those themes are pleasant and well designed. I would like to make my text slightly smaller, and I’d like a night theme that had a sans-serif font. But I’m neither hugely picky about my formatting, nor do I need specific things to be able to read comfortably.

4) I am currently not having any trouble at all finding enough things to read that make the service worthwhile to me, and it’s been good for both going “Oh, yeah, I meant to read that sometime.” and “I sort of want to read a mystery I haven’t read yet, let me browse a bit.” (and discovering a new author, in this case Elly Griffiths, who I’m enjoying so far.)

Things I hope they improve: 

1) There’s no way to easily find other books by a particular author. (You can go and search, but you can’t just tap the author’s name and see everything in the system.)

2) The cover based format for your reading list makes it annoying to browse for a specific title, or have more than a small number of titles waiting to be read. I’d love something that would give me a text based list, or better, a sortable list.

3) As with pretty much every other ereader ever, it is a pain to manage books in series. I like both speculative fiction and mystery, both of which have many series books. (I note that there’s a new ereader app, Marvin, that actually does a good job with series once you feed it the data. Review coming soon.) However, the blurbs for each book that I’ve tested this with have been pretty good about mentioning series position.

4)  There are times when there are glitches on the formatting of specific pages: I’ll get only half the text (specifically, the left side of the screen.) It’s possible to read around this by holding my finger on the page, but annoying. (However, this happens only very occasionally – maybe a half-dozen times per book.)

5) There are times the page-turning mechanism doesn’t work quite like I expect it. (I have my Kindle app and Marvin set to page turn on a tap on left: technically Oyster wants you to flick up slightly, though most of the time, a tap will also do it.) I’d love a setting that lets me specify, and better yet, does away with the page turn animation entirely.

6) I find the process of browsing on the app to be pleasant, but I find it tedious to search for specific books. I’d love a web-based interface that would let me manage my reading list and search for books and authors in a larger screen, where I could check for things like series data or other series by the author, etc. in other resources. (They just added the ability to add something to your reading list from the web, like if they link it in a blog post, but they don’t appear to have a searchable interface yet.)

7) The aforementioned “I don’t want to be default social about what I’m reading” – it’s easy to mark something as private (tap the table of contents icon, change the setting at the top) but I don’t want to have to do that for every book.

In conclusion:

It’s a very new service, and I’m going to be interested to see how they continue to develop it. I do find it interesting that their current team doesn’t appear to have anyone with a stated background either from publishing or from libraries (or anything related: it’s all technical or business management roles right now) and I’m going to be particularly curious if that changes.

Feel free to ask more specific questions here, and I’ve got it on my list to do an update post in about 6 months. I do believe very strongly in giving new services time to find their feet.

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Information Technology Librarian at the University of Maine at Farmington, the small liberal arts college model campus in the University of Maine system.

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