Oyster, a subscription e-books service, launched two years ago “with a simple idea to build a better way to read on mobile.” When invitations to the platform first rolled out, they offered access to “more than 100,000 titles” for $9.95 a month. Before long, Oyster was being called the “Netflix of e-books” and over the next few years its library increased tenfold, to roughly 1 million titles. This past April, the startup announced that it would expand beyond its subscription model (still priced at $9.95 a month) to sell e-books as well. Growth was strong. Reader page views were soaring. “What we’re doing,” Willem Van Lancker, Oyster’s co-founder and chief product officer said audaciously, “is bringing every book in the world into that system.”
Alas, no longer. In a blog post Monday, Oyster’s co-founders said the company “will be taking steps to sunset” its existing service. Current users should expect a personal email in the next few weeks regarding the status of their account, and can contact Oyster for a refund. The co-founders “look forward to sharing more details soon,” but so far haven’t done so. Thankfully, though, Re/code has more info, reporting that several members of Oyster’s team—including its three co-founders—have gone over to Google and will join its e-book store, Google Play Books. Google will also reportedly pay out Oyster’s investors, basically making this an “acquhire.”
What could have done Oyster in? Oh, I don’t know, perhaps another company with a subscription e-book service and significantly more resources and consumers. Like, say, Amazon? It was pretty clear back when Amazon debuted “Kindle Unlimited” in July 2014 that the service could spell trouble for Oyster. The price was comparable ($9.99 a month) as was the collection of titles (600,000 on Kindle Unlimited as compared with about 500,000 at the time on Oyster). Not to mention that Amazon Prime customers already had complimentary access to one book a month from the company’s Kindle Owner’s Lending Library (selection that summer: more than 500,000). In theory, Oyster’s online e-book store was partly created to strengthen its bid against Amazon, but even here the startup was fighting a losing battle, with many titles priced significantly higher there than on Jeff Bezos’ platform.
Where Oyster failed to take Amazon on, however, it’s conceivable that Google plus a solid portion of Oyster’s staff could succeed. The Oyster team has the experience, while Google has the user base and largely bottomless pockets. By itself, Oyster wasn’t able to bring “every book in the world” into its system. But with Google, who knows? The Google Books project, a sort of complement to the Google Play Store, is already well on its way to becoming a digital Alexandria. Reincarnated under the auspices of that effort, Van Lancker’s dream may happen yet.