Price: Free (but requires $9.95/month subscription to use)
Last week, a new iOS app called Oyster launched in private, invitation-only beta. Oyster offers users unlimited access to the company’s 100,000 book library for a monthly subscription price of $9.95, prompting some to refer to it as “the first true Netflix-for-e-books app.” After a short wait, I was fortunate enough to get an invitation to try it out. I haven’t had the app for very long and I am sure it will change over the course of the beta period, but here are some initial thoughts on the app.
Once you receive an invitation for the service, you will be prompted to create your account. To do so, you must pick the first five books that you want to add to your reading list from those that are listed by genre in the initial setup process. The company has 100,000 books available and there are options for a fairly wide range of reading tastes, though it seemed to me that not all of the books that were later listed in the app were available at this initial stage. At this point, you can’t search for books. However, once you have created your account you view books by genre (Biography, Business, Fiction & Literature, History, Mystery & Thriller, Politics & Social Science, Religion & Spirituality, Romance, Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Self-Improvement, Sports, Technology & Science and More, the last of which is a catchall that includes sixteen additional categories), by searching, or by looking through curated collections of e-books with similar themes that Oyster has created. While you won’t necessarily find the current best seller you are craving in the collection, Oyster does include a mix of recent and classic titles.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Oyster currently offers primarily books aimed at adult customers. Given that the Terms of Service state that users must be 13 years old or older, it is unclear how much this will change in the future. But, despite this focus, there are some options for younger readers in the collection. While Young Adult is not separated out as its own genre, it is possible to find some YA books, such as The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde and Graceling by Kristin Cashore. A category entitled Childhood Favorites is also buried in the More category and includes a handful of children’s and middle grade fiction. Oyster makes it clear that the collection will vary over time (though they have said that users will receive notice and have plenty of time to finish any book that is being removed), so it is impossible to say whether more options for teen readers will be added in the future, but right now the options probably wouldn’t be enough to replace other sources for avid fans of YA literature. There is also an option to suggest books that you would like to see added to the collection, however, so if there is demand they may add more YA content over time.
Once you have selected a book to start reading, you have the option to customize your reading environment by choosing from five themes with a variety of fonts, color schemes and contrast levels. You can further customize your experience by adjusting both the font size and the brightness. You can navigate within books using the table of contents and as you are reading you can see both what percentage you have completed and the number of “pages” (meaning the number of times one must swipe) to the end of the current section.
Oyster includes social elements integrated into the reading experience. You can connect the app with both Twitter and Facebook to both connect with your friends from those services and to post updates about your reading activity directly from the app. However, you can also opt not to connect to social media and there is an option within each book to read it privately. Once you have finished reading a book, you can rate it with one to five stars and add it to your favorites if you wish. At that point you can also read a synopsis and find info such as the publication date and number of pages. From this same page you can also navigate to “related” books, though when I tested this for The Last Dragonslayer, I found that they weren’t particularly closely related.
Currently, Oyster only offers a single subscription option, which offers users an unlimited number of books each month for the flat rate of $9.95. Users pay by month and can cancel at any time. The app offers a nice and customizable reading experience. While it is currently only available for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Oyster has already announced plans to release an iPad app in the coming months. Personally, I can’t see Oyster filling all of my reading needs and I don’t think libraries have to worry about being replaced by this service, but those who find themselves reading several e-books a month may want to check out Oyster’s selection to see if it meets their needs. If you are interested in checking Oyster out, you can request an invitation on their website.