While the pace has slowed of late, thanks to Kindles, Nooks, iPads and the steady advance of mobile technology, the eBook market (and the demand for all shades of digital prose) has grown exponentially over the past few years. According to one estimate from the LA Times, the total revenue generated from eBook sales in the U.S. topped $3 billion in 2012, which equates to a 44 percent jump from the year before. Meanwhile, across the pond, eBook sales in the UK quietly turned in a record year, leaping 134 percent from 2011 to 2012. Judging by how long it's probably been since your friendly neighborhood teenager picked up one of those "analog content consumption mechanisms" fondly known as a "print book," and considering the continuing maturation of distribution channels and services for digital video and music, it's no surprise books are following a similar path. On the other hand, with the success companies like Netflix and Spotify have had in making enormous libraries of digital media accessible (and affordable) for Average Joes, it seems surprising, then, that similar mobile-friendly subscription models and social discovery/sharing technology hasn't yet been applied to books (to nearly the same extent). Well, Literati and book lovers rejoice. Thanks to Oyster, a plucky young, NYC-based startup, the wait is over. As confessed technologists and bookworms, co-founders Eric Stromberg, Andrew Brown and Willem Van Lancker began work on Oyster last year after becoming fed up with trying to find a quality, all-in-one mobile reading experience and library. While eReaders and digital books are hardly in short supply -- thanks to the Amazons of the world -- Oyster wants to create the first, real dedicated subscription service for books, while offering the same kind of personalized, social content discovery one has come to expect from Netflix and Amazon. After raising $3 million from Founders Fund, SV Angel, Founder Collective, Shari Redstone’s Advancit Capital, Chris Dixon and Sam Altman (among others) last fall, the startup is finally ready to begin pulling back the curtain on its new book-happy subscription service. Starting today, Oyster will be rolling out invitations to its platform, which is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. After signing up for a membership, users will be able to access Oyster's library and mobile reader through its new iPhone app (with versions for iPad and Android on the way). What does that mean? In short, Oyster's appeal is its straightforward subscription model, which offers unlimited access to its library of 100,000 titles for $9.95/month. From there, members can peruse its library, check out recommendations from its Editorial Staff if in need of some guidance and be off and reading with a few quick taps. At launch, Oyster's library offers titles from a wide range of genres, from sci-fi to biographies, including both classics and bestsellers. While 100K titles on-demand is a good start, the founders know that -- at least at the outset -- they're competing for mindshare with the likes of Amazon's colossal marketplace. As a result, the founders are focused on continuing to beef up selection and will be adding new titles every week as they move forward. Thanks to its size and reach, Amazon and iTunes cast a hefty shadow over the market, but part of the reason we haven't seen a book-focused subscription service like this is due to the leg work that's required to give readers access to premium content at any sort of scale. When news of Oyster's plans to offer an unlimited subscription model began to emerge last year, this was the one big piece that was missing. But since then, the founders have inked deals with a handful of big names in the publishing world, like Harper Collins, Houghton Mifflin, Worman, Melville House, Rodale, Open Road Media, RosettaBooks and F+W Media. As it moves forward, the team will look to continue adding to its list of publishers both big and small. On the other end, in an effort to create an awesome reading experience and increase stickiness, Oyster has baked a social discovery layer into its platform, allowing readers to keep up with what their friends are reading (and recommending) while curating their own "Reading List" on their personal profile. Much like Netflix, the app allows readers to peruse its library by genre and title, while offering personalized recommendations and suggestions on topics based on what's playing in theaters and what's getting buzz in the news. Like many of today's recommendation enginers, Oyster learns as it goes, parsing data on your reading habits and preferences to offer better suggestions to your reading list. The more active you are within the app, the more you read, the better its recommendations become. The same can also be said of its social discovery layer; as more users sign up and begin reading, the more they will begin to see recommendations and selections from friends pop up on their radar. Readers can follow their friends to get quicker access to their reading lists and recommendations (and vice versa), and, like Spotify, they can also flip on a privacy mode to keep your behavior and selections from being broadcast to Oyster's network. However, unlike Netflix and Spotify, it's not clear as of yet how Oyster is structuring its deals with publishers -- in other words, whether it's paying publishers or authors every time their book is selected (like Spotify) or whether the content is paid for up-front a la Netflix. The other potential appeal for the more casual readers out there is that Oyster enables you to choose specific chapters from titles, making it easier to skim through that self-help or cooking 101 manual and find what you're looking for. Or move onto the next. This makes browsing much easier, so that when you're not sure about whether or not a certain title is what you're looking for, you can peruse without having to pay full price. Combining the ability to go anonymous when browsing and reading with how Oyster has optimized its app for the mobile reading experience, from its typeface to using vertical swiping for page-turning (rather than the usual horizontal model), which ultimately makes way more sense if you're going to be reading a book on your phone. It's these little things, along with the promise of more targeted and personalized recommendations (especially of the social variety) as its network expands and a library that offers impressive selection for a new platform, that makes Oyster an awesome option for avid readers. It's definitely worth checking out. For readers looking to request an invite to the platform, click here.
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