No, seriously: Oyster comes pretty close to being a Netflix for ebooks

A lot of startups want to be the Netflix (s NFLX) (or Spotify, Pandora, whatever) for ebooks. That is, they want to provide unlimited access to ebooks for a flat monthly fee.

But this is really hard to pull off, because services like this need enough books to make the prospect of paying a flat fee for them palatable. Publishers are reluctant to sign up their titles, in part because of the difficulty of paying authors when their books are viewed this way. So you have services like Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which contains over 400,000 titles — the vast majority of them self-published stuff that you have never heard of.

When I first heard about the New York-based startup Oyster last year, I was extremely skeptical. Backed by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and founded by former Hunch, Google (s GOOG) and Microsoft (s MSFT) employees, the company claimed last October that it would be the Netflix of ebooks. Then we didn’t hear much from it for nearly a year. I pretty much assumed the founders hadn’t been able to pull it off and I was not surprised.

I was wrong, though: On Thursday, Oyster launched on iPhone (s AAPL) with over 100,000 in-copyright ebooks (i.e., not free public domain stuff) that users can access for $9.95 a month. It’s currently invite-only, and I’ve been testing the app for about a week now. The books are good: Real stuff you’ve heard of, from real publishers. The app’s design is fabulous: It looks and feels like a real app designed by a real tech company. Oyster isn’t perfect, but it actually delivers what it promises, and I recommend giving it a try.

First things first: How’s the content?

The app’s design is important, but if the content isn’t there, a service like this won’t work. So the key thing is that Oyster has the books: Over 100,000 in-print titles, plus public-domain titles that are not included in that 100,000 figure.

A warning: You will not find hot new bestsellers here. But you will find real books that you have heard of, published within the last decade, from publishers that you have heard of (if you follow that sort of thing). A sampling of the books available: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Best American Short Stories 2012, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The HobbitInterpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin, Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, Just Kids by Patti Smith.


Publishers participating — i.e., making at least a few titles available, not their whole catalogs by any means — include HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Workman, Algonquin, Melville House, Rodale, Open Road, RosettaBooks, F+W Media and self-publishing distributor Smashwords. You’ll note that HarperCollins is the only big-five publisher on that list, though Oyster says it’s in negotiations with all the big guys. As for Smashwords, if you were wondering if Oyster is filled with self-published stuff you have never heard of, it isn’t: You can find a specific Smashwords title if you are looking for it, but Oyster will only feature select Smashwords titles on its home screen (as it only features select titles from other publishers).

Oyster wouldn’t get into details with me about how it’s compensating publishers and authors, and wouldn’t state whether newer, more well-known titles are getting better royalties than older ones. CEO Eric Stromberg told me, “We’ve had the benefit of other seeing other types of access models like this, seeing where they have done things the right way and where they tripped up, and structured our model in a way that is beneficial to content owners.”

Thank goodness for offline reading

If you want to watch a movie on Netflix while you’re on a plane, you’re screwed: You can’t download it for later. With Oyster, however, after you add a book to your reading list, you can access it offline. You only need an internet connection to download new titles. That’s awesome.

The app’s design is fabulous

The iPhone app is crisp, clean and intuitive to navigate. You can tell that it was designed by folks with a serious tech and mobile background: Cofounder and chief product officer Willem Van Lancker was a lead designer for the Google (s GOOG) Maps iOS app. In my pre-launch tests, the app never crashed or froze up.

Oyster’s home screen offers Netflix-style browsing, with books’ covers arranged in rows in categories like “New & Noteworthy,” “Award-Winning Fiction,” “Book to Blockbusters” and “Popular Science.” To delve deeper, you can browse by genre (history, fiction and literature and so on) or search by title or author. When you see a book you want to read, you can either press a “play” button to start reading right away or press a little “+” icon to add it to your reading list.

Oyster Shutter Island

When you start reading a book, you can adjust the type size and screen brightness or select one of five typographic “themes” that change the font, line spacing, colors and textures of the reading screen. “It makes it a little bit more human and less geeky,” Van Lancker told me. It’s a small, pleasing thing that’s just one example of the close attention to detail in the app’s design.


There are discoverability and social aspects, if you care about that

Just as I don’t usually care what my social network is watching on Netflix, knowing what my social network is reading is not a must-have for me in an app like this. Oyster does have social features: You can follow other users, see what they’re reading and recommend books to them. But the social features don’t overwhelm the app, and you can ignore them if you want to. That’s especially early on, when I don’t know anybody who has actually signed up to use Oyster yet.

Oyster does have a recommendation algorithm, but it’s not a big part of the app at launch. “As we gain insight into the preferences and activity of readers as well as the similarities among books, recommendations will become more highly personalized and will change over time,” Stromberg told me. To start, though, the company is relying on human editors to curate featured sets of books and titles.

Now for the not-so-good

Oyster’s largest limitation is platform: It is only available on iPhone at launch. Stromberg told me that he’s particularly bullish on mobile reading because people have their phones with them all the time, and that’s why the company went with iPhone first. In some ways, I can see the logic of this: Having Oyster on iPhone first makes it easy to dip into and out of books while you’re in transit, and the fact that you don’t need an internet connection to read them (once you’ve added them to your reading list) really does make it easy to dip in and out.

That said, part of me thought it would have made more sense for Oyster to launch on iPad first. I think that most people do most of their serious book-reading at home, and at home, reading on a phone probably isn’t your first choice. It means that right now you can’t really curl up with a book through the Oyster app.

Regardless, you won’t have to wait too long for iPad: That app is coming this fall.

Android (s GOOG) users may simply be out of luck: Stromberg said Oyster currently has no “concrete plans” to launch on platforms beyond iOS.