Oyster, Shucked: More Changes Coming for eBook Subscription Sites

Oyster Books LogoAnd then there were two: Oyster, one of the three best-known eBook subscription services, announced Monday that it plans to shut down. Oyster has been vying with Scribd and Amazon for customers for its Netflix-like plan, which allows readers to borrow as many eBooks as they want for $9.95 a month. Or it did. Now, Oyster’s founders say they plan to “sunset” the service early next year.

It was a short run for Oyster, which launched in September 2013 as a competitor to Scribd. The marketplace got even more complicated in July 2014, when Amazon started offering Kindle Unlimited subscriptions for $9.99 a month. At that point, Oyster began offering titles for purchase outside of its subscription catalog.

Folks who keep an eye on these things have been wondering for a while whether the business model was sustainable. The viability of the model was really called into question in June, when Scribd revamped its catalog by cutting tens of thousands of romance titles. Their reasoning boiled down to this: romance readers are huge eBook consumers, and their subscriptions were actually costing Scribd money.

But Oyster’s not giving up on the eBook business entirely. In the blog post announcing their closing, its founders said they’ll be looking at “taking on new opportunities” relating to eBooks on cell phones, which they believe will become “the primary reading device globally” over the next several years. (My guess is they’re either not talking to any older readers, who may have trouble reading on small screens even with the font size set to maximum, or they’re writing off that market.)

Whatever Oyster plans to do next, it looks like it will be happening with Google Play Books. The site Re/code reports that Google is paying Oyster’s investors for the right to hire some of its staff – including its CEO and two of its founders. Makes one wonder whether Google is about to make some changes at Google Play, doesn’t it?

But where will Oyster’s subscribers go? We minions discussed the topic as we sat around the gruel cauldron earlier this week. Some of us wondered whether Oyster’s romance subscribers would pick KU over Scribd, based on their broader selection. But if readers are after author names they recognize (in other words, trad-pubbed books), Scribd might be a better bet for them. Another issue is subscription price; Amazon is famous for indulging loss-leader products to corner a market, and that may not be a business model Scribd – or potentially Google Play – can match.

What does it all mean for indies? I guess it depends on how much of a readership your books had on Oyster. I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I suspect Kindle Unlimited has been the most lucrative subscription platform for indie authors.

Anyway, as always, it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. What do you think?

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

5 thoughts on “Oyster, Shucked: More Changes Coming for eBook Subscription Sites”

  1. That’s too bad. Maybe Oyster is on to something with the smartphone thing, though. I don’t really even use my kindle fire anymore. My iPhone is so much easier for my needs. Yes, it could be troublesome for older readers or readers with vision loss. But, in terms audio books, iPhone is also better for me. I am almost deaf, and my hearing aids work with an app on my phone that sends sound directly to my ears. It’s pretty cool.

  2. Very interesting, Lynne. Especially that tidbit about Google. The Google Play bookstore is available, and for some it does well, but Amazon is still the 800 pound gorilla in the ebook business. I wonder if they’d try to do a subscription model, too, in order to gain share from Amazon. If Oyster is moving for the mobile market, partnering with the people who make Android is a good move. Though, I’m not sure how conquerable that market is. Most people I know who read on their cell phone, read using the app associated with their vendor of choice (ie. the Kindle App, the Nook app, the iTunes app etc.

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