Playing the Oyster card

Playing the Oyster card

There has been a lot of buzz in the bookish districts of the Internet of late regarding the misleadingly monikered, and at this point hypothetical, Spotify for books. This is being amplified by what, we are being told, are the closest attempts yet.

First there was the elegant iPhone app Oyster, an all-you-can-e-read service for a paltry $9.99 a month. Only available via invite and backed by a rumoured $3 million in investment from some top technology companies, it managed to whip book nerds everywhere into a September-long frenzy.

Then, this week, Scribd (once fêted as the YouTube of documents) announced it too would be throwing down the gauntlet and entering the e-book subscription arena. It would also be undercutting Oyster by charging slightly less, at $8.99 a month for unlimited content, and by being device agnostic – working with iPhone, iPad, and Android apps, as well as providing a website accessible on both desktop and mobile browsers.

Whilst sidestepping the direct question of whether either of these will grow into the services that some commentators are slightly breathlessly predicting, I was struck the other day by how such a model could be manipulated into a great discoverability platform for books. After all, with the ability to read as much or as little of a recommended title instead of a measly 12-page ‘Look Inside!’ sample on Amazon or the single title that Prime users are able to download from the Kindle lending library, there is nothing to lose by taking a punt on it.

The discoverability power of such a platform is also fed into by the quite different way in which people consume written content from the way they listen to music. And herein lies one of the many divergences that make the ‘SfB’ label so inadequate. Because although Spotify is a great tool for discovering music, it is invariably not used as such; subscribers are much more likely to submit to the week’s 216th listen of ‘Get Lucky’ then they are to try out something new. By contrast, though people do re-read their favourite novels, they are also unlikely to re-read the same summer smash hit more than once.

There is a problem here though. As a tool for helping self-published authors to become visible and for opening up publishers’ backlists, SfB is likely to prove excellent. But does it make sense for publishers to have their frontlists up there, given that any financial benefits gained from having the book discovered in this manner are likely to be substantially less than they would be if the book were to be discovered and read in a traditional manner? A warning can perhaps be heeded by the absence of some of the world’s most popular recording artists from Spotify. After all, if you are going to get listened to whatever happens, then why would you sacrifice people buying your music for them to stream it? Indeed, five of the big six publishers are currently nowhere to be found on Oyster or Scribd, which is likely motivated by very similar concerns behind the Fab Four’s absence from Spotify.

At launch Oyster does have a recommendation algorithm built in, and Scribd’s new service integrates with the existing social platform in the site, which also opens up the door to book discovery in new ways. But will either service be able to develop the inherent discoverability-friendly nature of the platform whilst being able to secure the support of big name publishers other than HarperCollins? If they can then maybe, as the Oyster developers hope, they will really start to ‘evolve the way people read’.