Oyster all-you-can-read e-book service extends to browsers

The monthly subscription service that lets you read an unlimited number of e-books is now available on any desktop or mobile browser.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
3 min read


Oyster, the e-book subscription service that lets you read without limits for $9.95 a month, has launched its service on all desktop and mobile Web browsers, the company announced Thursday.

The move is important for the 10-month-old startup given that its largest competitor is now Amazon, which launched last week a competing subscription service for e-books, Kindle Unlimited. Promising more than 600,000 titles, Amazon's service boasts a larger library than Oyster, though more than 83 percent of Kindle Unlimited titles are self-published e-books.

Oyster began as an iOS-only app with 100,000 just 10 months ago, but has since expanded to Android and even to Amazon's Kindle Fire line of tablets. Its library has since grown to more than 500,000 titles, half of which are self-published e-books from publishing platform Smashwords. Oyster's main strength is its balancing act: the service is more publisher-friendly than Amazon, opening up more access and therefore more mainstream titles and best-sellers for users.

"For our publishers, Oyster represents a fast-growing, new distribution channel for their books," Oyster CEO Eric Stromberg told CNET last week. "We're becoming an increasingly meaningful retailer every month, sending them more revenue."

Oyster has brought on not just one, but two of the so-called big five book publishers in the US. The service launched with support from only HarperCollins, but has since added Simon & Schuster to its library as well. Though much of those publishers' backlog is available right away, deals for new titles, Stromberg said, are hammered out on a case-by-case basis to achieve that symbiotic balance. Amazon, which is currently still battling French publisher Hatchette over e-book pricing, was not able to, or did not actively try, to close deals with the big five for Kindle Unlimited. An Amazon spokesperson refused to disclose the nature of deals with larger publishers.

"Our model works is that publishers are paid each time a user or reader reads beyond a certain threshold in the book," Stromberg said. That threshold is 10 percent, or the average length of a preview. "Publishers in turn pay authors. This is a model that we set up in the beginning to be sustainable for us but to adequately compensate authors too."

That means new books from established publishers typically take longer to arrive on Oyster, sometimes three to six months. They are also added in ways strategic to the publishers' promotional efforts, meaning occasionally earlier or in ways designed to better promote the author's work. In terms of payment, every time an Oyster subscriber downloads a book and reads more than 10 percent, it results in a direct sale, including for self-published authors at the rate they have set on Smashwords.

Amazon's Kindle Unlimited operates differently. It too has a 10 percent threshold for self-published authors but pays those writers out of a monthly pool that it shares with its Kindle lending library, a service available to all members of its $99 Prime service that contains many of the same e-books. Authors are paid a percentage of the pool, set at $2 million in July with the launch of Kindle Unlimited, based on the number of reads they rack up compared with all self-published authors. Amazon also requires self-published authors to restrict their titles to the Kindle platform, a program called KDP Select, to enroll in Kindle Unlimited.

For Oyster, promoting its broader library of higher-profile e-books -- and expanding its availability on different platforms like mobile web browsers -- allows its service to better compete against the scope and popularity of Amazon's Kindle platform.