Oyster: The App That Changes Everything

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As a researcher it's part of my job to make predictions, or at least hypothesize about the future, and I rarely make such direct and sweeping predictions, but here's one: Oyster will change everything about the book publishing industry. Oyster is a beautiful book subscription iPhone app that allows access to over 100,000 books for $9.95 a month. The subscription aspect is just one revolutionary feature, but the real gem is that Oyster has finally nailed the browsing experience. No major digital publishing application, from Apple to Amazon, has made an even remotely enjoyable book browsing experience. This, for me, has been the major deterrent in developing a digital book library. I don't enjoy looking for books online; it's tedious, frustrating, and impossible to get reliable recommendations. My primary resources for book recommendations are still friends and local bookstores. (But this is definitely not the case for music and movies.) And let me be clear--nothing can replace the local bookstore in terms of pure, unadulterated browsing joy. But right now, Oyster is by far the best option we've got online, and I imagine it will only get better with the release of their iPad app this fall.

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I've been waiting about a decade for something like Oyster and though I am frustrated by how long it took to get here, I realize it wouldn't have worked without the devices to run it. The publishing industry is one of the last holdouts for subscription based services. I can't remember the last time I bought a CD or a DVD, long ago switching to iTunes and now Spotifiy/RDIO and Netflix. But the book industry is fundamentally different from the music or movie business. We already had the systems in place to run digital music and movies (screens and speakers). What we did not have was the hardware to support a system of digital books, especially not in any portable way. The reason Oyster changes all of this, might be more accurately related to the fact that the iPhone and iPad affect everything about publishing. We now have the containers, it's just a matter of filling them up with new book forms.  

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Reading books on Oyster is intuitive and calming. Unlike Apple iBooks where the type design is terrible and the ridiculous skeuomorphic pages and turning styles completely distract from a smooth digital reading experience. Oyster smartly designed the books to work naturally in the digital space, with vertically scrolling sticky pages. The number of pages left in a section is subtly in the bottom right corner and the title for the book rests in grey at the top of the page. There are several typographic options for reading on Oyster, including serif and sans serif options, as well as varied color combinations (reverse type, for example). The table of contents is always accessible by tapping on the top of the screen and is easily navigable. Hopping away from the book and back to the main page is as simple as tapping an X in the upper left of the screen. The Oyster homepage allows for browsing via several different channels: recent books you've been reading (the 10 most recent download for offline reading), a "spotlight" of curated works, popular, new and noteworthy, and a variety of genres, such as "critically-acclaimed fiction" or "travel writing." It's too early to tell how the social component will play out on Oyster, though depending on how good their recommendation algorithm gets, I may or may not actually be interested in what my friends are reading. 

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Here are some questions for Oyster: What does this mean for libraries? What does this mean for writers and publishers? What kind of revenue stream will this create? And more specifically, to the app itself, what does this mean for curation? I would caution Oyster from relying entirely on users to direct the recommendation process here. One of the many unique benefits of browsing in a local bookstore are the personalized recommendations of the bookstore staff.  Also true for libraries. The digital space is killing our editors and curators, and leaving everything up to the audience. One of the biggest mistakes Amazon ever made was firing their entire editorial staff and leaving recommendations up to readers. I don't mean to say that I believe in an elite system of gatekeepers and that I want to quash the everyman's desire to express their opinion, but I do believe that experts who have devoted their lives to a particular industry are in fact more qualified to suggest and review products in a way that laypeople cannot.

There are many more questions that will emerge as Oyster grows, but for now, I remain optimistic about the influence that this app will have in terms of both allowing a much wider access to books as well as new avenues for writers and publishers to distribute their work. Oyster takes its name from Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, “the world's mine oyster” with the idea that all the pleasures of reading are yours for the taking, no matter where you go. And with that in mind, here we go.