Subscription book app Oyster has come a long way since launching just over a year ago. The service has more than quadrupled its library of books to 500,000, landed big publishers like Disney, and released apps on several new platforms like the web. This week, the company debuted a new feature called Book Lists that’s like GoodReads — except this time, the place to find new books is also the place to read them with one tap.
It seemed like a good time to catch up with Willem Van Lancker, the creative co-founder of Oyster.
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Even my friends with Kindles don’t seem to read a ton anymore. There are just so many distractions that seem to deliver quicker fixes of entertainment. How do you compete as an app sitting right next to Instagram and YouTube?
It’s funny — if an investor isn’t a big reader, they don’t see a market for this. But we’ve seen that for young people especially, reading has taken off and become a bigger form of entertainment than music or movies in certain situations. When you’re on the subway or laying in bed, what we want to do is make reaching for books as easy as possible. And when you see the YouTube logo and Oyster logo next to each other, that you can feel that you can dive into that book really easily. We want to be the premium entertainment source for that content.
It’s important to understand that the reading population in the US is massive. The books market, in terms of total books sold worldwide, is bigger than both movies and music. If you include educational books, it gets even bigger. Book reading is a huge attention-driving activity in the world. How many hours do you have to allocate per day for books, movies, etc? What we’ve found is that there’s a massive appetite for this.
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Is your selection part of package deals, or individually vetted?
We work with six of the top ten publishing houses. Those are the guys that when we sign with them, it adds thousands of books to the library, and that spans everything from literary fiction to sci-fi and the many imprints within them. On the other end of the spectrum we work with some of the best independents in the world, and we’ve been very targeted towards finding independents that maybe only have 20 or 30 ebooks, but those books are the caliber of the top titles on Penguin or Simon and Schuster, and those are like McSweeney’s, Melville House, Chronicle, Disney, Nat Geo, it’s a lot of big name brands with libraries that aren’t quite as large. On that end of the spectrum we’ve signed pretty much everyone meaningful and have deals with all of them. There are only a couple publishers that we still haven’t formed deals with.
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Amazon doesn’t release much info about the data it gleans from its many readers. What are you guys seeing?
The biggest thing is that our engagement is really off the charts. Our average user uses Oyster for over an hour every day. That’s on the level of Facebook. People are staring at Oyster, which counts for a lot in the mobile economy in a weird way. And most of the time that’s in a book. We get people to books really quickly. On average people tend to open about four books to each book they end up going on to read, so there’s that sense of sampling and browsing. We have the fastest downloads of any other ebook platform. The idea is that you tap the book and you’re on the first page, which really lowers the barrier to reading.
In terms of funny trends, romance books get read faster, especially towards the end. There’s a lot more highlighting in non-fiction. The movement around books is interesting, because with fiction it’s always just a straight line. And there are some books that people just don’t finish. Gatsby is started constantly and never finished.
Where are people reading more, tablets, phones, or on the web?
We’ve always been really big believers that the device of the future for books is the phone. That’s the first thing we went to publishers with when we started talking about the differentiation of Oyster, that we can provide the best possible mobile experience.
It’s hard to get the data on this with Android, because, what is a tablet? But between iPhone and iPad, it’s a 50 / 50 split. It might even be higher on the phone in recent months over the iPad. This is an app that people use on their phone constantly, and we see the actual activity spiking during the week at lunchtime, and through the evening and peaks around midnight, and on the weekends it’s pretty sustained. Unlike a lot of products, our biggest days are Saturdays and Sundays, but when we added the web reader, you see it spiking on weekdays because people are reading during work.
We thought about making a button you could hit that would make Oyster look like Microsoft Word like they do for March Madness. It would be funny to bring that to books.