Aiming to be the Spotify of books

Aiming to be the Spotify of books

Aiming to be the Spotify of books

The all-you-can-consume subscription often seems made for the Internet. Netflix supplies a nearly endless amount of TV and movies; Spotify does the same for music.

Pay a small monthly fee and then get as many episodes or songs as you can handle, for as long as your subscription lasts. It is a model that’s both convenient and enjoyable.

So why not add books to the subscription mix, too, right? That is the bet several companies are making, offering e-book subscription services that let you pay $10 (Rs 611) a month or less for unlimited access to books in their catalogue. The most noteworthy entrants so far are Oyster, Scribd and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which became available in July.

The deal sounds appealing on its face. Someone who reads two or more books a month could save a little money. For those who read far more, the savings could be substantial.

But there is a hitch, and it is a big one: While the services each offer hundreds of thousands of books, many newer books are not yet available through these subscriptions. That is because the services haven’t been able to reach deals with many of the major publishers, especially for new books. So unless you’re a truly voracious reader who doesn’t mind older books, you probably want to avoid adding this monthly charge.

The newest subscription book service - and possibly the one with the most long-term potential - is Kindle Unlimited from Amazon. This service, which is $10 (Rs 611) a month, gives access to 600,000 books.

The one feature that really separates Kindle Unlimited from the other services is that it works on Amazon’s Kindle e-readers, like its popular Paperwhite device. Oyster and Scribd work only on apps for iOS and Android tablets or phones (including Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets), meaning that you’re almost certainly going to be reading for extended periods on a tablet or phone screen with a lot of glare.

Kindle Unlimited is also available as part of the existing Kindle app for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry, and it can be used on a PC or a Macintosh computer. But the option to use the service with a dedicated e-reader really sets it apart.

Kindle Unlimited also includes audiobooks and a clever feature that syncs your place in a book whether you’re listening to the audio version or reading the text version. So you can be reading a book at home and then switch to the audio version if you’re working out or driving to work.

That’s a neat feature, and one not available on Oyster or Scribd, though it works on a small selection of books - about 7,800 by Amazon’s count.

But Kindle Unlimited is hampered mainly by Amazon’s uneasy relationships with publishers. None of the big five publishing houses - HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, Hachette or Simon & Schuster - are on board. So Kindle Unlimited is lacking many popular books.

There are a few top books, like “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” by Thomas Piketty, which is published by Belknap Press, an imprint of Harvard University Press. And the entire Harry Potter series, published by Scholastic, is also available. But the subscription is best if you want to get caught up on the classics; I found nearly every book I searched for from a list of 150 classic books - although “The Tempest,” strangely, will still cost you 99 cents.

That said, many classic books are already available free or for a dollar or two. So you’ll have to be reading a lot of them to make the subscription worth it.

In addition, many people already have access to Amazon’s Kindle lending library through Amazon Prime, the popular $100-a-year (Rs 6,115) offering that provides free shipping on Amazon and several other perks, like movie and music streaming. Prime members who also own a Kindle device can borrow one book a month from a collection of 500,000 books.

Yet Kindle Unlimited is different in several ways. It’s not restricted to one book per month. And the Kindle lending library works only on Kindle devices. Still, if you are a Prime member, there isn’t much upside to signing up for Unlimited as well.

I also found the Kindle Unlimited interface to be the clunkiest of the three. It’s not easy to find the Kindle Unlimited home page, and you often end up browsing a list of Kindle books, looking for choices that are free.

Oyster is the prettiest of the digital e-book subscriptions, with an understated interface featuring nice big cover images and promotional categories like “Dark & Stormy,” “Summer Blockbusters” and “Oprah-approved.”

Oyster, like Scribd, has fewer books overall than Kindle Unlimited. But the two services have the digital blessing of publishers like Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. The deal with those publishers is for their older books, known as their backlist, and I found popular series like “Wars of the Roses,” by Philippa Gregory, and a nice collection of Neil Gaiman books, a personal favorite.

“It’s a nice way of getting options to consumers,” said Chantal Restivo-Alessi, the chief digital officer at HarperCollins. “In particular for the backlist; you might capture someone and they might get hooked on an author or a particular series, and they might go buy the upcoming book from another channel.”
That’s probably not what most consumers are hoping to hear. But I had no trouble finding books to read among Oyster’s collection.

One frustration I had with Oyster, though, was particularly bad search results when I looked for a book that wasn’t available. For example, searches for James Patterson turned up books “inspired by James Patterson” and an author named B. James Patterson.

And a search for the current New York Times best-seller “Cut and Thrust” by Stuart Woods returned “Cut and Thrust” by Stevie Woods and four or five pornography books. Considering that Oyster also features children’s books from Disney Publishing, the app might want to integrate some parental controls.

I also found some of Oyster’s social features a bit oppressive. Signing up for the service, which is $10 Rs 611) a month, involves pressure to share on Facebook, create a profile with a photo and invite friends to the service. This is the way many apps work these days, but it felt exhausting when I just wanted to enjoy some quiet, private reading time.

As for Scribd, sign-up was simple and I was able to pay using my iTunes account, so I was searching for books in just a few seconds. The interface isn’t as attractive as Oyster’s. Cover images are small, unless you tap on a title to expand it, and the interface sometimes seemed slow. I often had trouble logging in on its web interface, as well.

Scribd is $1 (Rs 61) a month cheaper than Unlimited and Oyster, and although it has the smallest number of titles in its catalogue, I found fewer unpleasant surprises than with Oyster.

And Scribd, which actually started as a document-sharing service, still lets users upload any essay, book, recipe, presentation or other type of writing for distribution on its site. That gives it an interesting collection of content, like maps or instruction manuals or even legal filings.

Still, while I found many of the same books on Scribd as on Oyster, those books are already available as inexpensive e-books. If you read only one book per month with any of these services, you could potentially lose money on the subscriptions.

In the end, all three services left something to be desired. While consumers might be ready for e-book subscriptions, it seems book publishers are not. Until then, a Kindle, an Amazon Prime subscription and a library card are still the best deal for consumers.