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.


Blinkist and the “read less, learn more” movement

Remember the “info snacking” phrase that was somewhat buzzworthy several years ago? The thinking was that everyone was too focused on reading short bursts of content and soon no one would have the attention span to read an entire book. In fact, info snacking was one of the terms Jeff Bezos mentioned when the Kindle launched; he suggested that the Kindle would encourage more deeply engaging, long-form reading.

And now we have Blinkist. Think of Blinkist as info snacking for books. Blinkist summaries are so short they make Cliffs Notes seem like long and boring tomes.

Let’s leave fiction off the table for a moment and talk about books on business strategy, investing, management, marketing, etc. How may of those 300-page books have you finished and immediately realized the author could have conveyed the critical points in about 5 pages?

You can almost see the editor telling the author, “this is great stuff, but we need you to double/triple/quadruple the length.” That (sort of) made sense in the brick-and-mortar days when a shelf presence drove discovery but now these books feel like they’re artificially inflated.

I’ve only read a few book summaries on Blinkist but I think they’re onto something. Yes, I remember (and once subscribed to) other summary services including getAbstract and Executive Book Summaries. I always found those to be nothing more than glorified tipsheets. If you really wanted to learn the key elements of the book you still had to read the whole thing. Blinkist’s summaries are definitely superior to others that I’ve read before.

10-15 minutes is all it takes to read one of the many well-written Blinkist summaries. Have you always wanted to read The Lean Startup? Why spend hours reading 300+ pages when you can get the gist in about 10 minutes? How about Business Adventures, that classic book Bill Gates recommends every business leader read? You can knock out that summary in less than 15 minutes.

I think we can all agree that every book doesn’t lend itself to a good summary format experience. Some authors, even non-fiction authors, are wonderful storytellers. Bill Bryson is a great example. I read his A Short History of Nearly Everything several years ago and found it to be an amazing journey from start to finish. When I saw Blinkist offers a summary of that one I have to admit I cringed. That’s a book you should read in its entirety and there are, of course, countless others that should never be read only in summary format. So while there are exceptions to the summaries formula I tend to believe most non-fiction books are excellent candidates for an abbreviated alternative.

The big question I have is why aren’t publishers taking control of this model? Why rely on a third-party to write and distribute these summaries? Who is better qualified to do the job than the original author or editor? I could see publishers selling these summaries, standalone or as a subscription, direct on their websites.

We all know why publishers won’t do this though. Most publishers view this as cannibalization and replacing a higher-priced sale with a lower-priced one. That’s unfortunate but far from surprising. Smarter publishers will consider bundling the summary with the full ebook at a slightly higher price than the ebook alone. Others might find opportunities to actually charge more for the summary figuring it’s a time-saver and some readers will be willing to pay a premium for a faster read. Still others will use the summary as an upsell to the full ebook: When consumers buy the summary they also get a special, limited-time discounted offer for the full ebook.

Most will just sit and watch though. It’s a textbook example of The Innovator’s Dilemma, which, I might add, is also available as a summary on Blinkist. :-)


Observations from BEA 2015

The Javits Center must have some sort of time warp technology. I recently attended the BEA event there and I kept asking myself the same question: Is this 2015 or 2005? The digital vibe was almost nowhere to be found in the expo hall. For example, publishers are still handing out stacks of print galleys and samples. Is that really more effective than digital copies? Wouldn’t it be better to distribute e-versions and gather customer info along the way? All this talk of establishing direct relationships with readers and having access to the resulting data still seems to be the stuff of fiction.

There’s also still a big gap between the core industry and the startup community. The Startup Alley, an expo aisle featuring 15 or so up-and-comers, is a nice concept but doesn’t seem very effective for anyone. It also highlights a bigger problem in the publishing industry: there’s no platform or service that continuously evaluates new startups and helps match them with publishers who could benefit from their capabilities. Startups are generally relegated to an area off the beaten path with virtually no buzz to draw attention to them. That’s sad because, as Richard Nash pointed out during the IDPF conference, it’s clear the real innovation is going to come from the startup community.

The most painfully accurate statement I heard all week was from Michael Bhaskar of Canelo Publishing during his opening session at the IDPF event: “Publishers treat ebooks as a secondary priority.” This is partially understandable given the fact that print is still the largest revenue stream but I believe this mindset also prevents digital content from achieving its full potential. 

Bhaskar made another terrific point when he noted that the music industry is leveraging consumer curation in ways the book publishing industry hasn’t even dreamed of. I believe tomorrow’s e-content leaders will fully understand and encourage consumer curation. Whether you call it remixes, custom editions or something else, this is a concept that will help the industry achieve escape velocity from today’s print-under-glass model.

The IDPF conference highlight for me was Jane McGonigal’s session. I haven’t played a video game since PacMan in the early ‘80’s so I went into this one highly skeptical but she opened my eyes to the possibilities. It’s not that every book has to become a game. That’s not it at all. Rather, she challenged the audience to find ways of creating content that takes readers to a whole new level of enthusiasm. The images she showed of gamers completely engaged and immersed in the experience were inspiring.

Another valuable IDPF session was one where Jim Hanas of HarperCollins interviewed David Arabov of Elite Daily. Arabov described how Elite Daily organically builds audience and community and turns that into their finished product. Compare that to book publishing where a totally non-agile approach is used to build products behind closed doors with the hope that yesterday’s marketing models will generate buzz (e.g., buying promotions, shelf space on physical shelves, etc.). Wouldn’t it be cool if publishers engaged with readers during the idea conception and development process rather than waiting till the end after all the time and money have been invested? That sounds like Wattpad to me, which might explain why Allen Lau and his team always report such amazingly high traffic levels. Now they just need to figure out how that translates into revenue, of course…

I had the pleasure of serving as moderator on a couple of IDPF panel sessions. The Amazon panel included Molly Barton and she made an excellent point about the problems with today’s closed ebook ecosystem. As Molly described it, readers often want to socialize their reading experience and today’s model forces them to have those conversations away from the book. Why not integrate this functionality in the reading app? It can be completely unobtrusive, where the service only appears when the reader wants to access it rather than forcing readers off to other apps and platforms.

All-you-can-read subscriptions were, of course, a topic that came up many times throughout the week. Scribd’s Andrew Weinstein shared some observations including how this model affects the long tail. As Weinstein put it, with unlimited reading platforms consumers are more willing to abandon a book and move on to the next one if they lose interest, figuring there’s no additional cost to taste-test a lot of books every month. First of all, let’s hope that’s doesn’t turn out to be the most important benefit subscription platform have to offer. Second, what does that say about the industry’s inability to create a sampling model that actually works?

Finally, I wanted to mention an interesting quote from Sherisse Hawkins of Beneath the Ink. Sherisse has been a pioneer in pushing ebooks beyond the print-under-glass experience and she said that one of their readers recently sent a message saying, “thank you for helping me avoid getting lost in the ‘wiki holes’”. That reminded me of the new Wright Brothers book by David McCullough that I recently finished. It was a fantastic read but I can’t tell you how many times my curiosity led me away from the book to Google where I searched for locations, images and related content. Unlike Sherrise’s customer, I did get lost in a variety of “wiki holes”, but it once again proved to me that this industry needs to figure out how to provide consumers with something more than dumb content on smart devices.


The evolution of ebook subscriptions

Today’s ebook subscription providers offer a nice value proposition for avid readers. It’s great that the all-you-can-read models from Oyster, Scribd and Kindle Unlimited provide consumers with something other than the print model where you buy one book at a time. Now the industry needs to think about how the subscription option can evolve further and enable even more interesting business models.

Think about books that tend to change frequently over time. Technology how-to guides and reference manuals are just a couple of examples. When I was a tech book publisher I often heard complaints from readers about how the book they bought last month is already obsolete. As the industry shifts from print to digital this is a great opportunity to create a one-book subscription: For $x/year the publisher offers to keep the digital edition up-to-date and the consumer is reassured they haven’t bought an obsolete product.

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Another approach is to look at small libraries of highly focused content. One of the things you’ll quickly discover with each of the current all-you-can-read models is that their depth on a particular topic is pretty limited. For example, as a baseball fan I can tell you that Oyster’s sports library is pretty shallow. The problem becomes even more noticeable this time of year when publishers are releasing a bunch of new titles for opening day; you typically don’t find many new releases in the ebook subscription programs.

Rather than leaving new titles out, why not feature them in a mini-all-you-can-read library for a topic like baseball? If one publisher has the title depth they could do this on their own. Most topics would benefit from a multi-publisher solution though. In that case, a provider like Oyster could offer this as an add-on to their current $9.99/month model. I would gladly pay an additional $5/month for access to newer releases of baseball books in my Oyster subscription. For those of you concerned that the monthly price is too high, think about what other add-ons could be featured in a program like this; once you know the subscriber’s preferences (e.g., baseball fan), it’s not too hard to come up with other digital goodies you could include to make the deal even more compelling.

Will the book publishing industry simply settle for the basic ebook subscription model we see today? That’s highly likely given the industry’s aversion to risk. It took the combined efforts of two startups, Oyster and Scribd, to get the publishers this far in embracing the subscription model. Let’s hope another startup comes along to take the model even further.


Content, technology and the digital scrapbook of your life

Every year it seems our cell phones take on new roles in our lives. Long ago flip phones merely enabled you to make calls. Today’s smartphones are loaded with sensors to do everything from track your health to tell you about a sale at a local store.

I think it’s time for our phones to do even more and this involves the convergence of content and technology to automatically create the digital story of your life.

Imagine an app that constantly monitors your phone’s location to do the following:

  • Log where you were today and make assumptions about what you did in each location,
  • Gather and organize content relevant to where you’ve been,
  • Build it all into a living, growing record that you can edit and share with others.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Now let’s think about the results of this.

One day you went to see the Reds play the Pirates in Pittsburgh at PNC Park. The app logs the event and pulls in the box score along with a couple of noteworthy articles about the game from the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh newspapers. It also saves the weather information (e.g., “partly cloudy, 61 degrees at first pitch with a high of 68 degrees”) and provides interesting factoids about what happened in sports on that same day 5 years ago, 10 years ago, etc.

On another day you attend your child’s college graduation ceremony. The app checks the school’s calendar and determines you were indeed at the ceremony. This information is logged and because the school was kind enough to expose the graduation program to the app, it too has now been digitally preserved in your stream.

By the way, this imaginary app also offers a user network. So it knows that you went with a friend to that baseball game, and your friend is part of the app’s network. This tidbit is also preserved along with all the great pictures you both took at the stadium. No longer do you have to worry about uploading or emailing photos; your app settings were already configured for two-way sharing between you and the friend who accompanied you at the game. The same goes for the graduation ceremony; now all your friends and family who are members of this service all have access to each other’s pictures.

We could, of course, extend this even further… If you ordered food at that baseball game the information could be logged so you could easily track your diet. In short, any transaction that takes place on your phone could be wired into this app as well. Those transactions that aren’t made with your phone could still be easily integrated: just take pictures of the receipt and the phone does the rest.

The app’s goal is to provide every user with a digital scrapbook of their life. The key is to automate as much of this process as possible. Let your phone and the app figure out what to collect and you can always go in and tweak it later if you want.

There’s also an enormous content opportunity here. I mentioned how the app pulls in content from newspapers but, of course, the feeds could come from anywhere. Ultimately this is a way to redeploy content based on context and preserve it for years and years. After all, one of the reasons you want to gather this information is to remember and relive the events of last week or last year. It’s also an interesting way to build the story of your life, one that can be passed on from one generation to the next. I’d love to have this kind of information about my parents and grandparents, for example.

A variety of business models could be used here including free, advertising/sponsor-based and premium. Ancestry.com and other genealogy services have proven the interest we have in our past. People spend hours and hours sifting through all that historical data, making assumptions about family connections, how people met, etc. An app like this eliminates the guesswork and tells the life story you want to communicate with your friends and future generations.