The Sunday Salon: An Oyster review (What it's like to have a Netflix for books!)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Sunday 
Salon.com

Good morning, Sunday Saloners! It's crazy cold out here this am and it feels awesome to be in my PJs, curled up over a book or browsing the web. We don't have any major plans for the day but we are planning to visit Miami and Key West over the Thanksgiving holidays. I am so looking forward to the break - I feel like it's been forever since I went on vacation anywhere. The husband's brother stays in Miami so it will be wonderful to have some extended family time. I still haven't figured out what books I'm going to take. If the husband's hints are any indication, then it doesn't sound like I'm going to get any reading time while there. So the flights are going to be the only times I'll get to read something. Still, I may pack any number of books into my Kindle - always good to be prepared! The weather in Miami/Key West is expected to be in the 70s, so different from the sub-40s temperature here. I guess I should wait until later to pack up the summer wardrobe.

One thing I would have liked to have on my vacation is the Oyster app. Usually when I travel, I pack quite a few books in my travel bag and then when I plan to start reading something, I find that none of those books are quite calling me - maybe the airport setting calls for a different kind of book than what I have or I'm looking to laugh but all I have are tearjerkers or somber reads. With a Netflix for books, it's almost like carrying a whole library with you and being able to choose any book from there. Of course, carrying an ereader gives the same feeling, except you need to have a big enough ebook library already, which I don't have. Still being a very paper reader, ebooks haven't quite managed to steal me over.

When Oyster started showing up in the news, a few months ago, I began to get very excited about it. I didn't however give it a try until last month. I figured I could join the trial membership, see what books they had, if any caught my fancy, spend a month reading off of Oyster, and then deciding if the membership was worth keeping or not. During my browsing over the next few weeks, I found a few things I liked about it and a few that I didn't. After a month of browsing around, I figured I'll share my thoughts on the app with you.

Oyster Home Screen

The most important thing - Content
The very first thing I did as soon as I was done with the membership process was to check out the titles they had on their home page. First glance - I was a little disappointed that they didn't seem to have too many popular books. Scratch that. I was disappointed they didn't have too many books calling my name at that instant. Sure they had a ton of titles, but they weren't exactly something I may read, unless they were sitting on my coffee table. They didn't have many (any?) recent titles. And that was expected - Netflix worked pretty much the same way. I spent some more time looking through their collection and had to come around saying that they did have a lot of popular titles (Water for Elephants, a few of Ken Follett's books, The Hobbit and LOTR, Mudbound, A Reliable Wife, Michael Chabon's few works, Life of Pi, Fast Food Nation and several others). I could see that with time, Oyster will have a rich collection - already when I checked a couple of weeks later, I found that they had added a lot of good books to the list (I saw The Secret Daughter among them).

Oyster Home Screen

Eye Candy - The Looks
Oyster is a very beautiful app. I'm thrilled to bits that they decided UI was as important as the books itself. I have very little patience for clunky and ugly but useful things. Their home page is split into sections much like Netflix's homepage. Some of their sections include a Popular section, Recently Added, This Week is History (History buffs will love this!), Award Winners, Cliffhangers, Similar to <a book you recently read> and several genre books. One of my favorite sections is the Spotlight section, where they have some custom collections or themed books. One collection is called Writers in Writing, where you would see books like Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary and David Foster Wallace's The Last Interview. Another wonderful collection I saw was called Trivia Bootcamp with books like The Professor and the Madman, Now I Know and The Intellectual Devotional.

Navigating and Browsing
I did find the app a little clunky to navigate, to start with. But they had changed a few things within a couple of weeks, so I can only imagine that they are improving their app daily. I found that I didn't use their Search feature all that much. With apps like Netflix and Oyster, I like to be surprised. Sometimes, I know what I'm looking for, and more often than not, what I want isn't in their libraries. So, most of the time, I just browse around looking at what they had. Serendipity is a wonderful goddess!

Browsing through Oyster's collection by genre

You can browse their collection by genre. Here's where another favorite feature of mine is: They have a Recommended for You section, which I believe starts off with a default list but adjusts itself based on your ratings. When I navigated to the Literary Fiction genre, which is what I mostly read, I found titles like Blindness and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (both on my wislist), The Color Purple and The Things They Carried (both I loved). Really, most of the books I wanted to read are right here. I could spend all day trying to choose one to read out of countless options.

The Other Important Thing - Reading
After a little digging around, I chose The Reluctant Fundamentalist for my first read. There is a reason I chose that one, other than for the obvious fact that I wanted to read it. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a quick short read. I wanted to start with a small read because I wanted to be sure that I will finish it, no matter what. Also, if I didn't like the experience of reading on the app, I didn't have to stay with it for too long.

Choosing a read

Now here's where I had two troubles. For starters I didn't like the swipe action required to turn pages. In pretty much all reading apps, swiping left to right or right to left turns pages. In Oyster, you had to swipe top to bottom and vice versa. This may seem like a small thing, but it is one of those small thought-out things that take your reading experience one step further. Believe me - I develop UI as my day job and there are times I hear about the smallest things from people that break their enjoyment of something. Really, Oyster should remove their top/bottom swiping and stay with the convention. This is one area where being the same as the rest of the world makes total sense.

The other trouble I had was much more major and a deal-breaker. The ending of every chapter was missing! I would reach the last line on a page and swipe over to find that I am staring at a new chapter. Then I would go back, thinking that maybe I had double-swiped but nope, I'm back to the previous page with the unfinished sentence. I found a roundabout way to access the missing pages though. I had to shut down the app a few times, restart it and now, viola, the missing pages reappeared. I thought this may be the book's fault. So I tried another book to see the same thing happen there. Imagine if you had 20 chapters - you would be doing that 20 times. 40 chapters? 40 times!

That more than anything is the reason I figured Oyster wasn't ready for me.

The Mother of all Dealbreakers- Cost
At almost $10 a month, Oyster isn't cheap. For the voracious reader, Oyster is a great idea. They would be able to get through a ton of books for just 10 bucks a month. But for someone like me, who reads 8 books on the rare good month but mostly averages between 4 and 6, Oyster is expensive. And besides, my book sources wouldn't be limited to one app. There are the new book releases which I usually get from the library or my hard-earned money, the galleys, either print or ebook, and some books I chose to read for any reason but which aren't there in Oyster yet. I only read one book this month on Oyster. I am pretty sure that I will be more willing to try it if there was an Android app - I find the need for a quick fix when I am at work, during breaks. Right now, Oyster supports only iPads and iPhones.

Almost $10 a month

I wondered if tiered plans would be a good thing for Oyster, keeping readers like me in mind. But the whole selling point of Netflix and Oyster is to be able to read any number of books at a time. Limiting that count wouldn't work well for that business model. Bringing the cost down by a couple of bucks could make a lot more difference, so I'll be looking forward to seeing if they do get cheaper. The other thing I would be curious to see is if I would have access to their collections, to see what titles they have, without a membership. Based on that, I may be willing to take membership on a month-to-month basis.

Have you given Oyster a try yet? If you have an iPhone or iPad, you probably should. They give a free trial month that you can use to browse and sample around. If you have tried it, I would be curious to know what you think of it.

8 comments:

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

A warm destination sounds divine! Enjoy your time away!

Ti Reed said...

I've never even heard of Oyster! I am okay with my e-reader and the Overdrive app for my local library. I find stuff all the time and download it for later.

Shannon @ River City Reading said...

Good to see a review of this! I'm an Android user, so I haven't taken a peek, but I have been curious. Other than the operating system, the main thing putting me off was the fact that it seems like most of the books being offered were titles that would easily be available on OverDrive through my library - meaning, they're not frontlist titles people are fighting over. Based on the ones you've listed, that seems pretty accurate. It's definitely a pretty app, though. If they ever came up with something for new titles, I'd be all over it.

Sheila DeChantal said...

I had not heard of Oyster, thanks for telling me about it.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

One way or another, I have access to most any book I want -- barring anything really rare -- so I think Oyster is one of those things I won't use myself, at least not for a while. (I've never been an early adopter.) It's good to hear what its pros and cons right now are though! If you're a reader who appreciates serendipity (which I am not), I bet it could be great.

Athira / Aths said...

I would have loved it much more and even ignored the pricing if I could get newer books on Oyster. But then, that would open up a whole can of worms, wouldn't it. It's a pretty good app. I will mostly use it on a month-to-month basis.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome!

Athira / Aths said...

It is certainly a great option for a reader who reads a LOT of books each month. In case they want more options. I may stick to using it on a month-to-month basis.