Oyster brings a reading buffet to iPhones and iPads with “all you can read books” for $9.99 a month.
The app features gorgeous design, a library of more than 100,000 titles, and a book lover’s social network. I started by signing up on Oyster’s website for a 30-day free trial of the service, and then downloaded the Oyster app to my iPad. I would have preferred to handle everything from within the app, but the developers are probably hamstrung by Apple’s App Store rules. The app prompts the user to fill in a profile which can be connected to Twitter and Facebook. This social connection allows readers to see what their friends have read, and their favorite books. With my profile finished, it was time to pick a book.
The Oyster home screen is extraordinarily well put-together. Books you’re working on sit at the top of the screen, and below that are collections suggested by Oyster, new arrivals, and titles from Oprah’s Book Club. You can look at books in a specific genre or search for titles and authors. Tapping on a book will show the jacket copy, plus a selection of similar books. Some books have jacket art designed by artists at Oyster, and they are gorgeous. I was a little disappointed in the recommendation system, however. For instance, Kerouac’s The Sea is My Brother pulls in some strange recommendations, including a biography of Dave Grohl and three World War Two history titles. While the recommendation engine is probably no worse than Amazon’s, that’s a real problem in a service that encourages users to experiment with new authors and genres.
Oyster’s 100,000 titles sounds like a lot, but it is merely a good foundation. For instance, Keoruac and the rest of the beats are almost completely absent, but the catalog is growing. During my trial subscription, Oyster added a wide selection of children’s books, including the complete Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Oyster only has one of the big six publishers on board at this point, Harper Collins, and their titles in the collection are at least a year old. Fortunately, the service boasts a number of smaller publishers who are eager to get their authors in front of an audience and are putting their latest works into Oyster. At ten bucks a month, Oyster is a bargain if you read at least one eBook per month, but you may not be able to find all the books you love by your favorite authors right now.
It’s no good having a large selection of books without reading software. Oyster’s built-in reader is a departure from both Amazon and iBooks readers. Instead of a left or right swipe, it is paginated vertically. This makes a lot of sense on a small device like an iPhone or iPod Touch, but was not as natural on a full sized iPad. Swiping left or right will highlight text in Oyster. I think there is a lot of work yet to be done when it comes to eBook reader user interfaces, and it is nice to see a designer trying something different, even if I’m not sure I’m in love with their choices. The reader also offers a variety of fonts and background colors, from artsy to a background for night reading. The sharing feature works well on Facebook, but the app tends to be a bit wordy for Twitter. The app’s annotation feature, which leaves a note on highlighted text, is nice for students working on a book for class. Notes can be shared with other apps, like Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, or may be emailed. The best thing the reader has going for it is that it stores your last ten books for offline reading. For readers that have wi-fi only tablets, that is extraordinarily convenient.
Oyster isn’t the only buffet out there. Amazon Prime is cheaper for students, but requires a Kindle device to borrow books, and has a borrowing limit. Scribd also features “all you can read,” but has sacrificed good design for portability, and clocks in at a dollar less per month. A good user interface is worth at least 12 bucks a year, and the user feedback on Scribd’s app on iTunes gives even less reason to be confident about it.
The most exciting thing that Oyster brings to readers is a freedom to experiment, to pick books that they aren’t sure they’ll love, and especially in non-fiction to explore viewpoints that are not their own. This is still early days for Oyster, and while I think it is a remarkable, disruptive, world-changing app, I am sure that the best is yet to come. Looking a year into the future, I think we’ll be asking ourselves why eBooks didn’t always work this way.
I’ve enjoyed my time with Oyster, and I will be keeping my subscription when my free month ends. The app as it stands today shows that it was written by people who care about books and the reading experience. If you enjoy trying out new authors, genres, and ideas, this is what you’ve been waiting for. Feel free to follow me on the service. But if you read just a few authors, or are just interested in a limited number of book series, it might not be for you. Even if it isn’t for you, Oyster represents a real step forward for book lovers, and will be at least as transformative in the publishing industry as iTunes has been for the music industry.