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Publishing: A very public library

A New York City tech start-up wants to create a Spotify-like service for reading. A place where you can borrow books? How novel...
  • @timwalker

Imagine there was a place where you could browse a vast selection of fiction and non-fiction books, a place a bit like a bookshop – only, instead of buying these books, you could just borrow them, for as long as you liked. And for free! (Sort of.) Sounds a bit like a library, doesn't it? It also sounds a lot like the business model for Oyster, a brand new digital service that does for books what Netflix does for films, and Spotify for music: in return for a monthly subscription fee, users can borrow from what it calls "an ever-growing collection of high-quality published works," and read them on their smartphones.

This week the fledgling tech firm, which is based in New York, announced that it had raised $3m from its latest funding round. Founders Eric Stromberg (ex-eBay), Andrew Brown (ex-Google and Microsoft) and Willem Van Lancker (ex-Google and Apple) say their investors include "international business and creative leaders in technology, media, and books."

Oyster – as in, "The world is your…" – is yet to roll out for general consumption, and it's unclear when it would become available to UK users, though anyone can request an invitation to the service at readoyster.com.

However, its website suggests why it might be an improvement on past apps of a similar bent. It is tailored specifically to smartphones, unlike rivals (such as the Amazon Kindle app), which it claims are "incomplete and shrunken copies of their tablet counterparts". It also wants to retain users with its innovative book recommendation and discovery aids.

There are potential pitfalls, naturally. Oyster says its market research found that people "love" reading on smartphones, "the perfect reading device for those in-between moments in their lives."

Presently, however, there are no plans to make Oyster books available to users on other platforms, such as tablets. Many Kindle app users, for instance, read the same book simultaneously on their tablet and their smartphone, depending on the circumstances.

The service sounds good for readers, but what about writers? Authors, says Oyster, "deserve to have their books treated in a way that reflects the care they put into their writing."

Stromberg told TechCrunch that his firm already has deals in place with a selection of publishers, and will share its revenue with its publishing partners based on how many times a book is read.

While this sounds rather noble, it's a lot like Spotify's deals with record labels, which have left many artists disgruntled by its meagre royalties.