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5 things we learned from the demise of Oyster Books

Oyster logoThe news from Oyster Books was disappointing but hardly surprising. They recently announced plans to “sunset” the service in the coming months, a fancy way of saying their all-you-can-read experiment is over. It’s unfortunate, as I believe there are both a market demand and a viable business model to be found for book subscriptions.

I’ve been an Oyster subscriber since early 2014 and have been quite pleased with the service. As both an Oyster customer and a member of the publishing industry community, I offer these five lessons from the Oyster experience:

  1. Unsustainable business models are, well, unsustainable – Oyster had to find a way to attract readers as well as publishers. To address the latter, they made the mistake of promising to pay publishers their portion of the full digital list price as soon as a subscriber read a certain percentage of the book. This percentage was set far too low, so publishers jumped at the opportunity and Oyster ended up losing money on subscribers who exceeded the threshold on two or more books in a month. Approximately 14 months ago I suggested Oyster (and competitor Scribd) were on borrowed time and that they had about 18 months to adjust or fade away. It appears at least one of them will disappear within that 18-month window.
  2. Adjusting business models is hard – Oyster tried to address the mounting financial pressure earlier this year when they announced plans to sell books as well as rent them. Even though Oyster was hardly a household brand name, the niche they carved out was clearly defined in the all-you-can-read space. It’s nice to think you can add buying to the rental model, especially when it creates one common bookshelf for the reader. The problem though is that one company already dominates the ebook selling business, so without a compelling advantage over existing models there was no reason for consumers to buy as well as rent from Oyster. 
  3. Content sampling remains broken – Everyone in the industry should applaud Oyster’s efforts to solve the content sampling problem. My wife and I share our Oyster subscription, btw. When I told her that Oyster is circling the drain her biggest disappointment is that she’ll no longer be able to explore so many new books and authors. Like many, she loved the fact that you could read part of an Oyster ebook, abandon it at any point and never feel guilty. The x% free sampling model that exists elsewhere, and sometimes barely gives you something to read beyond the frontmatter, is weak at best.
  4. Think depth, not breadth – Oyster wasn’t the first all-you-can-read ebook subscription and it won’t be the last. The ones that have thrived for years tend to focus on a particular genre or audience. They don’t try to lure customers in for the low, low price of $9.95 per month and they don’t pay publishers as though the book was sold. So in addition to working with a more viable business model, they tend to focus on a specific customer and offer enough depth to keep them engaged.
  5. All-you-can-read subscriptions devalue content – It’s true. When you’re only paying $9.95 per month to read as much as you want you start questioning the purchase price on $10 ebooks. If you’re a publisher and you already cringe when your ebooks are discounted to $9.95 or less you’ll feel even more uncomfortable participating in all-you-can-read platforms. Then again, re-read the previous point about depth and monthly pricing before you completely opt out of subscription services down the road.

It’s unclear when Oyster will disappear but I’m glad they at least warned us and didn’t abruptly shut down one morning. As I race to finish a couple of lengthy books I started a few weeks ago I’m hoping Oyster might grant a final wish to subscribers: Let us keep the books we’ve almost completed. Publishers have already been made whole on these so I’d like to think they would support the concept as well.

Comments

Sally Tickner

Great article Joe! I agree with point # 4. I believe this can really work in a category where you offer content for a specific vertical or community. There are also some innovative corporate opportunities around branded collections which may fit some genres.

Deborah Emin

Great article, Joe. I think publishers are missing the boat here again. Not small presses like mine, though I think we could offer content on a subscription basis to some key groups and do well with it. But certainly there are publishers who have very deep lists who don't promote and/or acknowledge a huge part of their backlist (and OP titles could be re-born too). Readers who enjoy an all you can read subscription service are often both eager to discover and should be encouraged to share.
This obviously dovetails your articles on content production, which I think were also thought-provoking.

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