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Writing about Reading: Scribd and Oyster

Because I spend a lot of time reading online publishing news, I kind of thought everyone’s heard about Oyster and Scribd, the two main ebook subscription services.  I was recently reminded that most people don’t have their head stuck in digital publishing news the way I do, so I thought I’d talk about them here.  I have a subscription to Oyster, so that’s the main one I can talk about.  I’ve actually spoken with the founders of Scribd – a colleague of mine in our ebook project was on a panel with one of them, and they had questions about how librarians handle metadata.  But Oyster gave me free iced coffee and whoopie pies at BookExpo this year, so there my loyalties lie.

So both of these competing services are like Spotify for ebooks (leading me to wonder what the spotify of spotify is…man, that’s deep….).  For $9.99 or $8.99/month for Oyster and Scribd respectively, you get access to a huge catalog of 500k or 400k books (again, respectively) that you can read.  You can read one a month, or 20 a month, or 100 a month.  Still the same price.

Oyster first launched last fall, and I used it when I was pumping in the middle of the night.  At the time they just had an iphone app, which I used on my ipad, which wasn’t the greatest, but it was ok.  Now they have an ipad app, and they just launched on android and the kindle fire.

Neither one of them has the most current bestsellers from the big 5 publishers, though Oyster just announced a deal with Simon & Schuster (though it’s for their backlist mostly, it appears).  The publishers are all wary that these kinds of services are going to cost them sales, so they’re dipping their toes in.  That being said, they have great stuff from HarperCollins, Workman, Smashwords, and lots of others.  There’s a lot of discoverability in these services with personalized recommendations, and the ability to share lists and the social aspect of reading and sharing  your reading with your friends (though you can opt to read in private mode if you’re reading something smutty that you don’t want people to know about!).

Oyster’s reader is totally wonky, which I kind of hate, especially now because I’m used to it, and so I wind up trying to do the sameThe Oyster Truck at BEA 2014 actions when I’m reading on my kindle app, and it’s all very confusing.  You scroll up, which is just weird.  Rather than across.  Like you’re reading a scroll or something.  Maybe that was the plan.  Tie it all to medieval scrolls and Gutenberg or something.

There aren’t a ton of variations to choose from in terms of font size, etc., though they did just add the option to have night mode with your favorite font.  In a previous version, night mode had its own font, which I didn’t like.  Now I can keep my favorite font, and just switch it to night mode so the screen is dark.  You can download up to 10 titles at a time to read offline, which is good for when you’re away from home and wifi, like on a long flight.  And there are all the normal highlight, notes, etc., buttons.

What I really love about these services is how I can read books I would never usually try otherwise because it doesn’t cost anything more than the subscription fee.  It’s much the same affect as being at the library.  The thing is, the ebook library services don’t provide that same experience because the main vendors have a one-checkout-at-a-time model replicating the physical world (even our ebook platform does that; it’s what the publishers want and understand, with the exception of Workman who are interested in trying unlimited simultaneous use models, and are doing so in North Carolina on a platform there, but that’s a different story), so there are waiting lists for most titles.  With Oyster, I see something I like and I can start reading it without putting it on hold.  It provides instant gratification.

I’m definitely getting my money’s worth from Oyster, and I’ve discovered several new authors that I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.  If you’re a bookworm, these kinds of services are worth a try.  I can’t speak to Scribd as much, but I’m sure they offer the same features (if not more – they’ve actually been around longer, but only just launched their consumer service).  Sure, they don’t have the big bestsellers right now, but they have great stuff (I’ve had the experience several times of buying a book – like Bernard Cornwell – from Amazon, only to see it show up on Oyster – new note to self…always check Amazon wishlist against Oyster first!).

And while you don’t own the books, you don’t “own” any ebooks, unless you break the DRM, which is illegal.  Amazon can your ebooks back at any time if they find you violated the terms of service or something.  It’s a philosophical sort of question, but I’m much more getting into having access to something, even if it means paying each month for that access, than having ownership of it.  $9.99/month for access to millions of songs or 500k books doesn’t seem that bad a deal.  Sure, it’s often free at the library (and I’m biased and need to put that in there) but again…instant gratification.

So I’m an Oyster fan.  Sometime I’m going to have to try Scribd, just so I can compare easily.  Until then, if you ever want an Oyster invite, get one from me so I get a free month!  Shameless plug, but there you go.