The past couple of weeks have been pretty big for the e-reading book lovers among us and for the world of ebooks in general. First of all, Amazon unveiled Matchbook, a scheme which enables customers who buy paperback books from them to obtain the Kindle editions free or at a fraction of the cost (though Amazon are far from the first distributor to offer book buyers this).
And now subscription-based unlimited distribution, such as we already have for music (Spotify) and films (Netflix), is coming to ebooks too. For just $9.95 a month, New York-based startup Oyster offers users unlimited access to their list of books - currently numbering over 100,000 in-copyright titles, from a range of publishers, including HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Algonquin. Their list also includes public domain titles.
The app is currently still in invite-only beta (you can request an invite through the Oyster site), but GigaOM's review promises that its design is "fabulous: it looks and feels like a real app designed by a real tech company." At the moment, the app is only available for the iPhone, but Oyster have announced that they intend to release it for the iPad in the autumn. Fitting in with their decision to focus first on their smartphone release, Oyster have also re-thought their e-reading design: users scroll from top to bottom, rather than right to left, and there is increased customisation for font and text size.
Like Spotify and Netflix, Oyster is not just an easy-access distribution service - it's a social one too, enabling users to discover and share content. Books are grouped by genre and every user has a social profile on the app and can follow the reading activity of the other users with whom they are connected. Users can also share books to social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram. From an author's perspective, this makes Oyster a potentially very useful publicity platform if their titles are available through it and the app gains the traction it is hoping for.
Personally speaking, I am very excited about this app and I hope it becomes available for platforms other than the iPhone and the iPad, as I have neither. I'm not a huge fan of reading from smartphones either, so I'm hoping for tablet alternatives.
I read voraciously and I am also an ardent book-buyer (I consider it my personal duty to support the book industry with as many fibres of my being as I can afford at any given time). Last year, Waterstones' loyalty scheme led me to the alarming (and yet oddly pleasing) realisation that I had spent over £200 on books from their shops alone. Given that I also buy from independent bookshops, online retailers, and other chains, I reckon that I probably spent closer to £400 - £500 last year on books. This is not including all the books I received as gifts.
I don't expect that a subscription-based service would reduce the number of books I buy - I buy them because I want to own them, love them, and decorate my shelves with them - but it would increase my reading even more and hopefully give me access to books that I might not buy, but would certainly borrow.
For authors, I think Oyster could also be a good platform to introduce readers to their work. Eric Stromberg, co-founder of Oyster, says that with an access model, "you spend less time thinking about making a purchase, less time thinking about whether you should read this book and really just start reading it." For emerging and self-publishing authors, this encouragement towards impulse-reading should be very helpful, as readers who discover them through Oyster will hopefully be encouraged to seek out and actually buy their other titles. Self-publishing platform Smashwords has obviously seen Oyster's potential and already formed a partnership with them, so we should see Oyster's list of 100,000 titles growing rapidly.
If you have an iPhone and fancy testing out their beta, you can sign up for an invite here. I'd be very keen to hear about people's experiences of the app, so do report back! (If ever there were an incentive to get an iPhone, sigh...)