Novel Idea? Oyster Offers Netflix Model For Books

Digital distribution of media has always tended toward the smorgasbord model. Even Time Inc.'s initial failed Pathfinder model, which collected the magazine brands and their digital content into one portal, had this spirit. Long before Netflix, there was a wave of digital movie services that aggregated all-you-can-eat access to streaming and downloadable flicks, if you didn't mind eating a lot of grade C horror and martial arts films that found every variation on the use of “fists” and “dragon.” And before Pandora and Spotify, there were many attempts by Rhapsody -- and before that, Napster -- to serve buffets of media.

Oyster was inevitable. The service that launched in private beta last week is a $9.99/month e-book subscription service. Oyster says that it has over 100,000 titles in its library, including at least one of the big 5 publishers in HarperCollins. You can find titles in here like “Life of Pi” and select titles from Michael Crichton and Michael Chabon. But the library has a long way to go before approaching the depth and breadth of Kindle or iTunes.

The same two questions always hover around these attempts at buffet models. First, can the provider convince the incumbent legacy media to buy into a new approach that could be seen undermining their longstanding publishing, distribution and marketing models? Second, are there voracious enough media consumers out there to see the value in a $10-a-month, $120-a-year book subscription? Most recently, Audiobooks.com started with a flat-fee all-access model for audio books but ultimately decided to offer tiered subscriptions with access to limited numbers of titles.

Like all of these services, Oyster is claiming to add value via social networking and recommendations. You will be able to see what your friends are reading and push titles to one another. “We think an unlimited experience where everyone has access to the same library enables opportunities for people to come together over books in ways like never before,” the company says. Personalized recommendations will also be part of the mix.

I think there is still a lot of work to be done with media discovery and social sharing, but I remain underwhelmed by a lot of what I see. I am intrigued by the potential of engines like GoodReads, which recommends titles, and I find that the social network effect in Spotify can be intriguing. One of the perennial problems for me with social network recommendations is that they often are shallow endorsements rather than insights that drive my curiosity. Let's face it -- most people know what they like in music, art, books, but lack the skill or perception to express it in meaningful ways. Social media engines don't put the same pressure on people as face-to-face encounters. When you tell someone verbally that you liked something, it usually merits a follow-up comment that explains the endorsement. In many cases, when I see what my friends and contacts are consuming in media, I am more intrigued by what it tells me about them than I am in pursuing their idiosyncratic tastes myself.

In all media, digital distribution and sharing does have the potential to upend traditional marketing with people-powered taste engines. But I think they somehow need to be smarter, with better sampling functionality, more editorially driven polish, and a way to surface the best and most insightful comments. 

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