Books Will Never Die — You’ll Just Find Them in Virtual Bookstores and Read Them on Your Phone

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Back in 2007, when Amazon released the Amazon Kindle, it sold out in five hours. But despite prophecies of doom for the publishing industry, today paper books are still going strong, and digital books are finding their own niche. With the rise of subscription TV, movies, and music, it was only natural that books follow suit, and in September 2013, Oyster — touted as the "Netflix for books" — launched for the iPhone, bringing users 100,000 titles for a $9.95 monthly fee. 

Since then, the company has grown astronomically and now offers more than 1 million titles.* And while Amazon has dominated the market for e-books, Oyster made a move this week to edge in. The small New York–based company has partnered with the Big Five publishers, which Amazon has notoriously miffed, to launch its own e-book store with individual purchasing option. We talked to Oyster CEO Eric Stromberg about Oyster's power play, the future of reading, and the draw of "old-book smell."

Why is the e-bookstore a viable model for Oyster?
About a year and a half ago we launched our subscription offering, and since then we’ve grown dramatically — we now have 1 million books in the subscription service, and we’ve maintained that $9.95 price point. We’ve also expanded platforms and built up a passionate base of readers who love reading on Oyster. So for us this is a natural extension to allow readers to purchase nearly any book in the world, including new releases.

How long does it take for a new release to appear as an e-book?
It really depends on the publisher. Some we get the day they come out, with others it’s a few months, and some take about a year.

But now you can get them immediately — instant gratification!
Exactly.

What was the process like to partner with the Big Five publishers?
We’ve already worked with HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster in subscription. The idea of selling books has been on our radar for a while now, and a few months ago we decided it was the right time to do it. We called up our publishing partners, and they had a really positive response to us launching an e-bookstore, so it came together in a matter of a few months.

How are the prices set?
Actually, over the past few months the majority of large publishers have moved to a pricing model whereby they, and not the retailers, set the end user price. As a result, we expect readers will find similar prices on Oyster that they’d find for e-books anywhere else.

How can you see Oyster evolving further in the future?
When we first launched Oyster a year and a half ago, we launched it for the phone. About 50 percent of the reading that happens on Oyster happens on phones, so we’re excited about the future of phone reading. If you compare reading on a phone from 2010 to reading on a phone today, it’s a huge difference — screen size is much bigger, and pixel density has increased. If you extrapolate that over the next five years, it’s exciting to think about where reading books on phones will go.

I’ve been reading a lot about virtual reality lately. What would VR Oyster look like?
If you look at digital books today, I think the market is pretty focused on a search-driven environment. If you know exactly what you want, you can press a few buttons and get your book. But we’re really focused on a search-and-discovery experience. Maybe in the future we’d love to have users put on their Oculus, be transported to a bookstore and take things off the shelves, walk around in their living rooms, and find their taste.

Traditional readers cite “old-book smell” as something they miss when reading e-books. What about an e-reader that emits that smell every 30 minutes?
I don’t know about that one … but it’s an interesting idea!

How can you see our relationship with books changing in the next 10 to 20 years?
Fundamentally, I think people love stories, and books are a fantastic way to deliver stories. They’ve been around for thousands of years, and it’s certainly our belief that that’s going to continue. How you access books and how you discover books might change over the next two decades, but we believe that words on the page, that stories, will endure long into the future.

What are you reading now?
I’m currently reading The Perfect Thing by Steven Levy about the launch of the original iPod — actually, to bring it full circle, I saw one of my co-founders at Oyster reading it and was inspired to pick it up.

This interview has been edited for length.

*This post was updated to make clear how much Oyster has grown.