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Ars Test Drives the "Netflix For Books" 108

Posted by timothy
from the ten-dollars-a-month-forever dept.
Ars Technica reviewer Casey Johnston gives a mildly positive review to the Oyster book-rental app (and associated site), which intentionally tries to be for books what Netflix has become for movies: a low-price, subscription-based, data-sifting source of first resort. For $10 a month, users can read any of the books in Oyster's catalog (in the range of 100,000, and growing), and their reading habits are used to suggest new books of interest (with some bum steers, it seems, at present). It's iOS-only for now, with an Android version expected soon. I've only grudgingly moved more and more of my reading to tablets, but now am glad I have; still, I don't like the idea of having my books disappear if I don't pay a continuing subscription.
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Ars Test Drives the "Netflix For Books"

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  • Looks familiar (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fibonacci8 (260615) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @05:07PM (#44792289)
    It's like a library, but we charge money for it.
    • Re:Looks familiar (Score:4, Informative)

      by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Sunday September 08, 2013 @05:17PM (#44792323) Homepage Journal

      It's like a library, but we charge money for it.

      There aren't any free libraries - even if you're not paying for them in any way, somebody is.

      If Oyster gets a good selection of tech books, keeps them updated, and has a linux viewer, then I'd sign up for $10/mo, sure, especially if I can get some childrens' books too. I own several hundred pounds of 10+-year-old tech books and nobody "can ever take them away from me". Great ... somebody please come take them away from me.

      • Re:Looks familiar (Score:4, Insightful)

        by MightyYar (622222) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @05:45PM (#44792495)

        There aren't any free libraries - even if you're not paying for them in any way, somebody is.

        That's only true if you ignore total dollars. A library simply buys a book and can lend it out until it is completely falling apart for no additional cost. Without knowing how Oyster compensates the content providers, one cannot make such a simplistic comparison. The law certainly favors public libraries, in that they don't need to negotiate anything with any content provider.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mysidia (191772)

          The law certainly favors public libraries, in that they don't need to negotiate anything with any content provider.

          Could a public library scan a book, and loan it out online for virtual access using a reader application, as long as they restrict access to one patron at a time?

          • Could a public library scan a book, and loan it out online for virtual access using a reader application, as long as they restrict access to one patron at a time?

            A) Not without violating copyright laws.

            B) That's the whole problem with public libraries and the Overdrive service. My city has as far as I know exactly ONE copy of each ebook in its inventory and a waiting list for them that's obscene. Go to the dead-tree branch libraries and they may have 2, 3, maybe more copies of the same book in physical form with more copies in other branches.

            And the maddening thing is that if Overdrive was set up properly, multiple ebook copies would be less trouble than multiple ph

            • by MightyYar (622222)

              My city has as far as I know exactly ONE copy of each ebook in its inventory and a waiting list for them that's obscene.

              Our library has multiple copies for popular books, but the waiting list is still obscene. The worst part is that you can only have 10 Overdrive "holds" at once, so your pipeline can easily dry up if you aren't strategic. Fortunately, we are a family of four and only my daughter and I use the Kindle :)

              • by hedwards (940851)

                Only 10? Ouch, my library allows me to check out 25 books at a time. And that's actively checked out, not ones that I have on hold. I'm guessing the libraries aren't as well funded where you live.

                • by MightyYar (622222)

                  The Overdrive thing is definitely not as well funded as the brick-and-mortar stuff. And as much as I prefer the Kindle to physically driving over to the library, I have to agree that the whole ebook library thing is only half-baked at this point. I'd hate to see them throw too much more money at it, since that money will obviously come from the physical collection.

          • by odie5533 (989896)
            That is exactly what Open Library does:
            http://blog.archive.org/2010/06/29/small-moves-open-library-integrates-digital-lending/ [archive.org]
            WSJ article: http://archive.is/1qgty [archive.is]

            Whether this type of fair use would stand up in court remains to be seen.
        • by CRCulver (715279)

          A library simply buys a book and can lend it out until it is completely falling apart for no additional cost.

          True in some countries, but not in others. In Finland, libraries must pay the authors of the books they loan out an annual fee to compensate for lost sales.

          • by MightyYar (622222)

            Yes, my apologies - I was being very US-centered. Copyright is obviously different everywhere. In the US, public libraries have something of a religious quality associated with them.

      • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

        by mcgrew (92797) *

        There aren't any free libraries - even if you're not paying for them in any way, somebody is.

        The money comes from your taxes, so they're free like freeways are free. The one here is excellent, no way will I ever rent books. You're paying for that library anyway, use it.

        • Re:Looks familiar (Score:4, Insightful)

          by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Sunday September 08, 2013 @09:26PM (#44793579) Homepage Journal

          The one here is excellent, no way will I ever rent books. You're paying for that library anyway, use it.

          I don't think I've ever borrowed a book from the local libraries as an adult. They have pretty much nothing I'm interested in (too esoteric) or anything that would be useful for work (they have six books on beginning photoshop, but there are two guys in town who use git, so nothing on that). Plenty of pulp fiction and childrens' books, but even their interlibrary loan is really weak (I used to ask things like, "can you get me a book on sword metallurgy?" / "no", and eventually gave up). By time I drive there and back, many of the books on Amazon used are within a dollar of being cheaper too.

          And, yes, I do have to pay for the 'privilege' of having these libraries. Score one for the pop-culture junkies.

          • by mcgrew (92797) *

            That's sad, the library here is excellent and has a wide ranging interlibrary program, there are few books you can't get. I'd hate to be stuck in your town.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Mr. Slippery (47854)

            but even their interlibrary loan is really weak (I used to ask things like, "can you get me a book on sword metallurgy?" / "no", and eventually gave up)

            That's not really how ILL works. You have to request a specific title. (Try Worldcat [worldcat.org] to find one.) My local library was able to get me anything I asked for that was in a library collection in the U.S. -- I was doing some historical research and asked for some pretty oddball texts.

            If you go in with a title and the librarians won't look it up to see if it's

          • by c0d3g33k (102699)

            They have pretty much nothing I'm interested in (too esoteric) ... (I used to ask things like, "can you get me a book on sword metallurgy?" / "no", and eventually gave up).

            This leaves me wondering why you felt compelled to comment, since it tells me little about the quality of your library system and more than I wanted to know about how 'esoteric' you are. The tone of your comment almost suggests a certain pride in how you 'tested' them with a request you likely knew beforehand would be difficult to fulfill, thus giving you 'justification' to find them wanting. Sword Metallurgy? In the 21st century? Really? Why not something more relevant like "Sextant Repair for Dummies

      • Safaribooks already does that, and cheaper too. You even get tokens for watermarked drm-free offline versions.

      • by DrXym (126579)

        There aren't any free libraries - even if you're not paying for them in any way, somebody is.

        Sure but now you're paying for 2 libraries.

    • Re:Looks familiar (Score:5, Interesting)

      by artor3 (1344997) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @05:35PM (#44792417)

      The added value that you're paying for comes from the recommendation system. I haven't tried it, since I don't have any iOS devices, but if it works well it could be worthwhile.

      If you don't want to pay, there are still libraries, not to mention plenty of sites with free ebooks.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Not only that, but many public libraries already offer time-limited digital copies of their books for FREE.
      So it's exactly like what many libraries are already doing, except private sector CASH GRAB.

      p.s. Yeah, yeah [citation needed]. The Austin (Texas) Public Library does this. I haven't used it personally, but I've helped my family members set it up.

      • by kaliann (1316559)

        Absolutely true. Many libraries use programs like Overdrive to "lend" digital media to anyone with a valid library card (sign in with card number on library's website).

        Ebooks or audiobooks can be downloaded onto various internet-connected devices. As long as you are connected, you can check out a book from thousands of miles away, 24/7 (excepting maintenance).

        I personally use the audiobooks as entertainment while driving (iPhone) and crank through plenty of ebooks on my tablet (Android).

        Libraries are free

        • Depends on your library. Mine has a terrible selection of ebooks, just a few hundred and most of them junk. I'd pay for a good library.
    • I've tried public ebook libraries and the UI & selection have typically been dreadful. I would happily pay $10/month for something better.

      Unfortunately, for me something better has to include some eink reader.

      • by cellocgw (617879)

        I've tried public ebook libraries and the UI & selection have typically been dreadful. I would happily pay $10/month for something better.

        Unfortunately, for me something better has to include some eink reader.

        Can you explain what that means? You expect a rental contract to include the reader? Does NetFlix give you a free DVD player/box to watch their stuff on? Does Comcast give you a free video monitor?

        • I think he means support for an eink reader.

          • by cellocgw (617879)

            I think he means support for an eink reader.

            Yeah, well, as we all know (??) software is pretty much separate from hardware, other than that it might take some hacking to get a "reader app" from one company (Amazon vs B&N vs Kobo) installed on a different company's E-ink device. Non-DRM'd files can be read on any of them.

    • Re:Looks familiar (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @07:29PM (#44793105)

      It's like a library, but we charge money for it.

      Yes, but it is also like Netflix, so it will not have any book that you are actually interested in reading.

      • by c0d3g33k (102699)

        So start a business catering to the vast hipster audience clamoring for more interesting material. Based on all the exasperated "Netflix has nothing I would ever want to watch" comments, you should make a mint.

  • I could see this taking off around college campuses if they offered the service for technical books. If they offered math, science, engineering ect... they could have every student on campus paying ten dollars a month for a year. They'd also have my business as well. Sometimes certain books don't cut it and maybe one book covers a subject better than another, having to option to work in both without spending 200$ is attractive; even if I don't get to keep them at the end of the day.

    • by mysidia (191772) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @07:30PM (#44793115)

      I could see this taking off around college campuses if they offered the service for technical books. If they offered math, science, engineering ect... they could have every student on campus paying ten dollars a month for a year.

      The academic publishing companies and authors would never go for this.

      Unless they have a trick up their sleeves that lets them use the content without special permission or requires content providers to license in a scalable way; the $200+ shiny new edition college textbooks are not likely to wind up there.

      • The publishers wouldn't like it, but scholarly authors might well. Many of us care much more about being read than about making money off our books. I'd give all my books away for free if I could, but unfortunately professional reputation requires publishing with major possess and the presses won't allow it.

      • Honestly, the publishing companies might not like it but they couldn't stop them legally. If you buy a book, you can then lend it to people or even rent it out to as many people as you want (one at a time, of course) without raising any issues. This has been tested before with video stores. Movie companies first hated them as they saw each rental as a lost sale. Then, they realized that people would rent movies they wouldn't have bought at all - thus generating more revenue.

        Of course, what the textbook

        • Never mind my previous comment. I just realized that Oyster is an eBook lending service, not a PHYSICAL book lending service. So, of course, textbook publishers could deny them access to their content or sue them if they created eBook versions of text books without permission.

          (This is what happens when you've been offline a few days, are trying to catch up on Slashdot, and comment hastily without fully reading everything.)

  • I don't get how they could just completely ignore such a large community. I imagine it wouldn't need too much (if any) real tweaking per device. They don't even bother addressing the lack of support.
    • by pieisgood (841871)

      It's currently invite only anyway. So they're not looking to expand too quickly, then have an audience that finds there selection lacking and immediately and irrevocably denounce the service all together.

    • by berj (754323)

      More money to be had maybe?

      http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-of-the-day-ios-android-spenders-2013-1 [businessinsider.com]

      Or maybe the developers know iOS better than they know android and they're trying to keep things simple until they know if the business has a future?

      • More money to be had maybe?

        From your article "iOS users tracking their expenses on Toshl spent an average of $3,297 every month, 19 percent more than those on Android, who spent $2,761. There's a similar disparity in terms of income."

        On Average it might be true that Apple users have 20% more expenses, but then there are six times more Android users. It is also very likely that the top sixth of Android users have more expenses than Apple, Android unlike Apple has phones at all ranges of the market, something Apple is looking to change

  • by YutakaFrog (1074731) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @05:37PM (#44792435)
    I actually think I would enjoy something like this, as I'm really enjoying using Kindle on Android lately. But not to the tune of $10 / month. The thing is for the $15 / mo you pay for Netflix, you could buy one movie. You watch one movie during that month that you otherwise would have bought, and you break even. It takes you one evening, and you still have 29 more days in the month to get more than your money's worth out of it. For the $10 they want per month for this service, you can buy one paperback book. But I know very few people who read more than one book per month right now. Maybe that's just because me and a lot of the people I know are all obsessed with the huge fantasty epics for now... (*cough*BrandonSanderson*cough) But personally, I really don't think I'd sign up for more than $2 or $3 per month. Good luck to them though.
    • by Cinder6 (894572)

      I have similar feelings. At present, I tend to go through 1-2 books per month, with 5 being my maximum (and a relative rarity). Even assuming 3 books/month, that means that each book is $3.33--not a bad price, but considering that it forces me to read on an iPhone/iPad instead of my Kobo, I'm still just not very interested. In fact, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with any price that would have me interested; I greatly prefer eInk to LCD and am willing to pay for it.

      I do wish them well. I wish Amazon/Kobo/BN

    • by technomom (444378)

      Same here. I use Kindle's Lending library quite a bit. The other thing this is competing against is just plain public library lending through Overdrive.

      One of the best kept secrets in New York is that all residents of New York *State* can get a New York City Public Library Card. http://nypl.org/ [nypl.org]
      NYPL has one of the richest ebooks collection for lending around. Works great through Overdrive with Kindle.

      $10/month is too steep. I would reconsider if the price came down to a yearly subscription of $50.

  • by Fuzzums (250400) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @05:41PM (#44792467) Homepage

    "still, I don't like the idea of having my books disappear if I don't pay a continuing subscription."

    They're not your books. You can read them as long as you pay your subscription. That's how a library works.
    You not like, you not borrow book, you buy book.

    Next!

    • by msobkow (48369)

      Not like any library I've ever dealt with.

      There may be a late fee if you return the book late, but they don't come to your door to retrieve it because you didn't pay a membership fee.

      • by hedwards (940851)

        That's merely because it's not cost effective to send somebody that's making a minimum of minimum wage over to your house to retrieve the book. Around here, it's cheaper to just write off the cost of the book, or more likely send it to collections. Most of the books they lend weren't $20 new.

        If it were cost effective, they probably would do so.

      • by c0d3g33k (102699)

        Wrong focus. The concept is that you have borrowing privileges as long as you are eligible. In a library system your eligibility arises from being a verifiable resident of the community, usually with a local address (so either paying taxes or paying rent to someone who is paying taxes). When you move away, your access to the library stops. Subscription based borrowing is similar - your right to borrow lasts as long as you subscribe, but your eligibility is limited only by your continued willingness and

  • A library.

    Except a library is free and doesn't install malware (also known as DRM) on my computer.

    So what's the attraction again?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Try going to the library when you're sitting in an airport because your flight is delayed for four hours.

      Or when visiting a city you don't have a library card for.

      Or when someone at work recommends a book and you know by the time you get off work, the library is closed.

      Or if you have a phobia of librarians.

      It's all about convenience.

  • Ars Test Drives the "Netflix For Books"

    Using a word that could be a noun or a verb - worse still, using two of them in succession - doesn't make for an easy-to-read headline. Especially if you initially fuck it up and write:

    Ars Tests Drives the "Netflix For Books"

    Just "tests" (or a hyphenated "test-drives" if you must) would have been a lot easier on the brain.

    It's made worse by Ars being a contraction that looks like a typo.

  • They make it sound like they offer the dream of an endless library, read any book you want, any time you want, anywhere you want for $10/mo. That does sound kind of dreamy. But they have only 100,000 books which sounds like a lot but will likely contain very few you are interested in. They only have iOS now and even there show only phone and not tablet. Android coming later. But what about eInk readers which many prefer or other devices in the future? What format are the books? I would accept only DRM-free
  • A little OT but what's happening with 1st editions of collectibles. I once had close to 3K volumes and collected 1st editions, mostly early 20th c. authors. With ebooks are hardcopy 1st editions becoming a better investment? I miss having a room walled by books. It has a special ambiance.
  • Content? (Score:5, Funny)

    by BenJeremy (181303) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @06:09PM (#44792651)

    Their website is about useless. How about some way I can peruse Oyster's current content offerings?

    I'm a sci-fi fan, and that's what I read... if you aren't offering books in my genre, why would I want to spend money on your service, and if I have no way of knowing that you offer any books in my genre, I'm not gambling just to be disappointed by your selection.

    On second thought, their web site actually makes me a bit angry. Probably because of its seemingly hipsterish pretentiousness.

  • It's a pity this is not available outside the United States... I hope it will come to Europe soon. Their FAQ states: "When will you expand beyond the United States? Book rights are regional and right now we are focused on building a best-in-class offering for the U.S. market. We don’t have a timetable for international expansion, but we are committed to growing Oyster and making it universally accessible over time."

    It reminded me of Safari Books [safaribooksonline.com], a subscription service for technical books. It was star

    • The US has a huge advantage because one set of negotiations lets you distribute copyrighted work to over 300 million people. Can't do that in Europe.
      • The US has a huge advantage because one set of negotiations lets you distribute copyrighted work to over 300 million people. Can't do that in Europe.

        Don't European rights include the whole EU? EU population is over 500 million.

    • by jedwidz (1399015)

      When Safari had starter plans for (IIRC) $10/mo I was right into it. Now it's just too expensive.

  • I've only grudgingly moved more and more of my reading to tablets, but now am glad I have; still, I don't like the idea of having my books disappear if I don't pay a continuing subscription.

    I see this as a big benefit for people that like to read for entertainment. You aren't paying for the actual books, just access to them. For light reading (entertainment purposes) this seems like a great deal.

    I'll always buy technical books I want to refer to in hard copy when I can, but I don't need a persistent copy

    • I regret the title of my reply. I edited it out of the post, but neglected to review the title.

      It's not actually moronic, and didn't mean to insult the OP.
  • We call it "a library".

    Loans out ebooks free to anyone with a library card.

  • by holophrastic (221104) on Sunday September 08, 2013 @09:55PM (#44793701)

    So, have you ever inherited anything? Do you have a book that your grandfather used to read? A record player? A record collection? One record? What about a video tape? A car? A tvision? A set of speaker?

    So if you rent your furniture, and your home, and lease your car, and your tvision doesn't last more than 5 years, and your speakers aren't worth more than a few dollars, then what exactly do you give to your children? What gets handed down?

    I know, just the words: "I've got nothing, you're on your own from scratch."

    Enjoy. But I like to have things that represent me; taken as a set, no one else would ever have them. And most items, aren't owned by more than a handful of people.

    But if the only things you use are things that millions of others use too -- iphones, the most popular books, only the most popular movies -- then congrats, you stand out like a chinese person with a chinese phone in china. Hello kitty.

    And by the way, that library of over 100'000 books...how many of them are public domain anyway? Oh yeah. Project Gutenberg. Oh yeah. Been reading on a computer for decades. Oh yeah. Just a cash grab. Oh yeah.

    • I hope to leave my children an education so they can succeed in life, some good memories, and maybe a handful of things that remind them of the kind of person I was and how I want them to live. My parents have loads of sacred family relics that aren't to be touched or bothered. I'll take a few when they pass but like most of my generation I can't afford to run a family history museum.
      • If you want them to succeed in life with an education, then you'll also need to provide a time travel machine so they can go back to when an education actually paid dollars. It doesn't anymore.

        But you can do, if you really value their future, is to sell your home now, and buy a large piece of land outside of the city for the same price. A farm, a country house, whatever. By the time they grow up, the city will have expanded, and that land will be worth a fortune. If they've been farming on it, you'll ha

  • I think it makes sense.

    Yes, you already pay for a local library but the books I want to read are often not in the catalog, or when they are popular they are difficult to get. If you would read for more than $10 books per month and you are not the type who prefers to keep books, then it is sensible.

    about:

    >> still, I don't like the idea of having my books disappear if I don't pay a continuing subscription.

    Well it is like a normal library, when you give the books back, you don't have them anymo
  • by Anonymous Coward

    as a company that doesn't advertise it's wares (or prices, for other places) without a login. Show me what you have.

    I might be interested when they have universal platform coverage.

  • I was with you until the last sentence:

    still, I don't like the idea of having my books disappear if I don't pay a continuing subscription.

    Sort of how the netflix streaming library goes poof if you stop paying a subscription? I could see your ambivalence if you paid for a book on your kindle only to see it go away if you stopped subscribing to amazon prime, but this isn't the case.

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