People love to read. (Proof: You’re reading this sentence right now, and you’re loving it.)
Our love of reading, particularly my work, will never change. But the digital world has drastically changed the ways in which we read.
We can still seek out books, magazines, and newspapers, but these days, many of us have the internet in our pockets. We do a lot of reading on our phones and personal computers via websites and apps.
So it makes sense that digital books should eventually replace physical ones: Unlike paperback and hardcover books, which are ultimately inefficient (i.e. they’re heavy, can be damaged, lost, or stolen), ebooks can be deleted or re-downloaded to multiple devices, and it doesn’t add any extra weight.
Reading apps go one step further: You can do things you wouldn’t readily do to a physical book, like highlighting, but you can also do things that are impossible for physical books, like tapping a word you don’t know for its definition, or clicking a character’s name for some quick background or context.
Despite these advantages, paperback books are still the most popular format, according to the Association of American Publishers, and numbers suggest they’re making a minor comeback in the US. eBook sales, meanwhile, are mostly flat.
Perhaps people are nostalgic for the printed word. Or perhaps a better way to read digital books hasn’t been discovered yet.
You may have heard of Oyster, the book-reading app that let you “rent” as many ebooks as you wanted with a monthly subscription. Despite its clever premise, the company announced Tuesday it is shuttering its services after two years as much of its team moves to join Google.
“As we continue on, we couldn’t be more excited about the future of ebooks and mobile reading,” the Oyster team said in a blog post. “We believe more than ever that the phone will be the primary reading device globally over the next decade — enabling access to knowledge and stories for billions of people worldwide. Looking forward, we feel this is best seized by taking on new opportunities to fully realise our vision for ebooks.”
According to Re/Code, this is more of an acqui-hire, where most of Oyster’s team is getting absorbed by Google and its investors will likely be compensated. But it’s still unclear if that means Google wants Oyster’s team to build its own book subscription service.
Google would be smart to consider launching its own ebook subscription service.
“But why?” you might wonder. “Why do a large-scale ‘Netflix for books’ when the numbers show people don’t read enough ebooks in the first place? What’s wrong with just buying ebooks?”
I would argue — and Oyster’s team probably would too — that buying ebooks is not the best way to consume them. The digital bookstore system penalizes you if you buy a book, start reading it and discover you don’t like it. Compare that to a physical bookstore or library, where you can technically read as much of the book as you want before walking out the door. Those “older” systems are much better for people who like to browse books before buying them.
Oyster’s “Netflix for books” solution is much more like a true digital library: Paying a monthly fee gets you access to all the books you could ever want. You can start reading them and put them down, or read all of them to completion. It’s a much more flexible model — for heavy readers, but also for people who like reading but would hesitate to buy books outright.
Perhaps ebooks are stagnant because the better solution hasn’t presented itself yet. All-you-can-eat subscriptions worked for Netflix with movies and TV shows — it makes perfect sense for books.
Oyster had the right idea, but perhaps not the right size to make its dream a reality. Google certainly has that size.
A service like Oyster’s encourages reading, which is especially important in the digital age where information is everywhere, and not all of it is good. Many people will continue buying paperbacks, but those people who love their iPads and their Kindles deserve a digital library — not just digital book stores — where, for a fair price, they can read to their heart’s content.
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