Oyster opens up online shop to sell new ebooks and goes Unlimited

Ebook subscription service Oyster Books has made a move away from the lending business to open up  an ebook retail outlet selling front-list titles from major publishers, including all of the Big Five, but its prices for some new books are double the Kindle prices.

Oyster claims all new releases, including runaway bestseller The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins and pre-orders such as Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman and Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, are now available through its ebook shop, plus backlist titles.

The new books aren’t available on the Oyster subscription service, which has changed its name from Oyster Books to Oyster Unlimited — that sounds familiar somehow — and will continue to be charged at $9.99 a month. The website name stays the same as Oysterbooks.com.

The subscription service has several of the major traditional publishers signed up but they only make their backlists available rather than new releases. None of the Big Five has signed up for Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription deal, which continues largely to be the preserve of the self-published.

Oyster does have more of a claim to using the word ‘Unlimited’ for its service as you really can borrow as many ebooks as you like. Kindle Unlimited restricts members to a maximum of 10 ebooks at any one time but you can ‘return’ books and borrow more whenever you want.

Oyster says its customers now read over 100 million pages a month, a big rise from eight million in December 2013.

100 million pages a month sounds like a lot, but if you divide it by, say, 250, as the average pagination of a book, then you arrive at around 400,000 books a month.

If you divide that again by, say, five for the average number of books a member might read in a month, then you end up with 80,000 members.

These figures are obviously fairly unscientific as it’s likely that the number of books borrowed could be higher as readers may just complete 50-100 pages of a book, for example, before moving on to another title.

The Oyster figures are, in any case, by no means an insubstantial number but are obviously well behind Kindle Unlimited, which, on my most recent estimates, had around 5,600,000 borrows in February and possibly around 750,000 members.

However, Oyster is, of course, a much smaller operation than Amazon’s Kindle and widening its business model to retail has got to be a good move with the uncertain and untried economics of ebook subscriptions.

The company has done well to get the support of the major publishers and the Oyster retail store includes all of the Big Five — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster — plus many more traditional publishers.

With Amazon reportedly reckoned to be limbering up for yet another tussle with a big publisher — this time, Harper — Oyster could gain some ground with the new venture, which sees it now match Kindle for availability of new ebooks and continue to surpass it on the subscription side.

However, the big weakness of the Oyster store is its pricing. For example, The Girl On the Train will cost you a mighty $12.99 at Oyster compared with around $5.50 on Kindle. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is also $12.99 at Oyster, while it’s under $5 on Kindle, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed is $10.99 at Oyster and again under $5 at Kindle.

Some Oyster prices are closer to the Kindle level, such as The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks at $7.99 compared with the Kindle cost of $4.99, and A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear at $15.99 on Oyster and $12.99 at Kindle, but that’s still a big difference for most readers.

Major publishers are obviously looking to increase their ebook margins significantly and shift the pivot in the book business just a little as they turn to operations such as Oyster and their own direct-sales websites to reduce their dependence on Amazon, but they’re unlikely to make much of an impact with these sort of price differentials.

Self-publishers can get their books into Oyster through distributor Smashwords. Oyster does not, as yet, have a direct self-publishing operation.