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The future of books is on your phone, not your tablet

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An interview with Oyster co-founder Willem Van Lancker

Subscription book app Oyster has come a long way since launching just over a year ago. The service has more than quadrupled its library of books to 500,000, landed big publishers like Disney, and released apps on several new platforms like the web. This week, the company debuted a new feature called Book Lists that’s like GoodReads — except this time, the place to find new books is also the place to read them with one tap.

It seemed like a good time to catch up with Willem Van Lancker, the creative co-founder of Oyster, who also happens to be one of the guys who designed Apple’s iconic iOS emoji. If Van Lancker has his way, his legacy will lie in changing the way we read, but the odds are against him: in the world of six-second Vines and disappearing snaps, keeping someone’s attention for more than a minute is a challenge — and Amazon has a competing service of its own called Kindle Unlimited. He took a few moments to speak to The Verge about how things have been going.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.

Even my friends with Kindles don’t seem to read a ton anymore. There are just so many distractions that seem to deliver quicker fixes of entertainment. How do you compete as an app sitting right next to Instagram and YouTube?

It’s funny — if an investor isn’t a big reader, they don’t see a market for this. But we’ve seen that for young people especially, reading has taken off and become a bigger form of entertainment than music or movies in certain situations. When you’re on the subway or laying in bed, what we want to do is make reaching for books as easy as possible. And when you see the YouTube logo and Oyster logo next to each other, that you can feel that you can dive into that book really easily. We want to be the premium entertainment source for that content.

It’s important to understand that the reading population in the US is massive. The books market, in terms of total books sold worldwide, is bigger than both movies and music. If you include educational books, it gets even bigger. Book reading is a huge attention-driving activity in the world. How many hours do you have to allocate per day for books, movies, etc? What we’ve found is that there’s a massive appetite for this.

oyster reading list
Oyster's new Book Lists feature in action

Once somebody’s signed up, how do you get them to read more books (and thus realize they’re getting value from Oyster)?

Netflix is unbelievable at this. Netflix’s long term plan is that when people are coming home and deciding if they want to watch cable TV, read a book, or watch Netflix, that they pick Netflix and reach this "moment of magic." It’s not that they know they want to go watch Skyfall or Orange Is The New Black, it’s knowing that they just want to watch Netflix, and I’ll let Netflix tell me what I should watch. And we want Oyster to do the same thing.

Netflix’s selection can be pretty hot and cold. There are the big hits, and the D-list horror movies that just fill space. How is Oyster’s selection?

Of the top 250 books ever written, Oyster has about 150. And that’s stuff that’s in copyright, it isn’t including Huck Finn and those kinds of books. We have those too obviously. Netflix, last time we checked, had 40 of the top movies. There’s already a parity, if not a greater selection of books on Oyster. The challenge with books is that people don’t just come to them for one reason. You can come to them for entertainment, or for enrichment, or because you want to learn something. We cover all those use cases, so the use case for Oyster is pretty broad.

We understand what our user base likes, and how to acquire more of those same kinds of content, so we’ll continue to sign publishers. But we’ll also be more targeted about the kinds of content we really want. It’s similar to Netflix in how they created their own serieses to reach that, and they just signed a four-movie deal with Adam Sandler. You might not think Netflix = Adam Sandler from a brand perspective, but they must know that everybody watches Happy Gilmore, or some of his older stuff.

oyster pride and prejudice 11

Would you ever create books and other content?

It’s not something that we’re thinking about right now. We want to be the best partner to the publishers as we can, and that’s about giving them the right information so they can give us the best content.

Is your selection part of package deals, or individually vetted?

We work with six of the top ten publishing houses. Those are the guys that when we sign with them, it adds thousands of books to the library, and that spans everything from literary fiction to sci-fi and the many imprints within them. On the other end of the spectrum we work with some of the best independents in the world, and we’ve been very targeted towards finding independents that maybe only have 20 or 30 ebooks, but those books are the caliber of the top titles on Penguin or Simon and Schuster, and those are like McSweeney’s, Melville House, Chronicle, Disney, Nat Geo, it’s a lot of big name brands with libraries that aren’t quite as large. On that end of the spectrum we’ve signed pretty much everyone meaningful and have deals with all of them. There are only a couple publishers that we still haven’t formed deals with.

oyster pride and prejudice 2

How are people finding books on Oyster?

80 percent of all of our books read come from Discovery. What we’re most excited about is creating demand. How can we merchandise, contextualize, and present the titles in a way where we add value? And we do that through a number of ways. One is algorithmic personalization, similar to what Netflix does, but the benefit being that there’s a lot more low-hanging fruit in books for signals because it’s all just text. Netflix has gotten to the point where they can do sentiment analysis within the videos, but scanning text is much easier.

So are you looking for keywords or what?

Yeah, keywords, thematic pairings, and we’ve built a data science team of three people that are building this as a core of the business — that personalized recommendation — and they’re also creating pairings of books. So the similarity between this book and this book might not just be that they’re in the same genre. Maybe they’re not. But we can actually come to understand and cluster books in really interesting ways. What we do with that data is once we have these clusters and their relationships formed, we editorially add a layer of human-ness to it.

"80 percent of all of our books read come from Discovery."

It might be something not too interesting like "fast paced," "short," and "written by a woman in the 1990s." That doesn’t actually connect with readers, so how can we add an editorial layer on top of that and name that set well? That’s also similar to the merchandising of books in a bookstore. The table doesn’t just say "Fiction and Literature," it says "Books for a rainy day." We’ve hired people from McNally Jackson, and Kevin [Nguyen, from Amazon] who have made a really strong push to build that editorial side.

Book recommendations, on the hierarchy of recommendations, tend to mean a lot and people really seek them out. If I’m telling you to read a book, I know it’s going to take you seven or eight hours. It’s not like "Go watch that Adam Sandler movie for an hour and a half." That’s something we really want to unlock the potential of the streaming model for that, creating connections between users and a deeper sense of community around books.

Amazon doesn’t release much info about the data it gleans from its many readers. What are you guys seeing?

The biggest thing is that our engagement is really off the charts. Our average user uses Oyster for over an hour every day. That’s on the level of Facebook. People are staring at Oyster, which counts for a lot in the mobile economy in a weird way. And most of the time that’s in a book. We get people to books really quickly. On average people tend to open about four books to each book they end up going on to read, so there’s that sense of sampling and browsing. We have the fastest downloads of any other ebook platform. The idea is that you tap the book and you’re on the first page, which really lowers the barrier to reading.

In terms of funny trends, romance books get read faster, especially towards the end. There’s a lot more highlighting in non-fiction. The movement around books is interesting, because with fiction it’s always just a straight line. And there are some books that people just don’t finish. Gatsby is started constantly and never finished.

"Gatsby is started constantly and never finished."

Where are people reading more, tablets, phones, or on the web?

We’ve always been really big believers that the device of the future for books is the phone. That’s the first thing we went to publishers with when we started talking about the differentiation of Oyster, that we can provide the best possible mobile experience.

It’s hard to get the data on this with Android, because, what is a tablet? But between iPhone and iPad, it’s a 50 / 50 split. It might even be higher on the phone in recent months over the iPad. This is an app that people use on their phone constantly, and we see the actual activity spiking during the week at lunchtime, and through the evening and peaks around midnight, and on the weekends it’s pretty sustained. Unlike a lot of products, our biggest days are Saturdays and Sundays, but when we added the web reader, you see it spiking on weekdays because people are reading during work.

We thought about making a button you could hit that would make Oyster look like Microsoft Word like they do for March Madness. It would be funny to bring that to books.

Why did your gut tell you that people are going to be reading on phones in the future?

It was my own behavior. Even when I’m in bed at night, I have an iPad mini with Retina and I still use my phone. And I have an iPhone 6 now, which is even better.

Are you seeing any meaningful innovations in the ways we actually read?

One of the first and most noticeable thing we do is that the pages default to being vertically oriented. On Kindle, your pages slide sideways, on Oyster they slide vertically. You can pull up and read between pages, then it snaps into place, so you maintain that organization of a page, which is so important with a book, because you think about it as a unit of measurement of a whole book. There’s this number of pages left in a book. But then also what happens when you pull to the side is your eye breaks the line and you have to go back up to the top.

"How can we embed books within other pieces of information?"

We allow for horizontal swiping, but the vertical swiping to me is how you read on the go. Why hold on to some of these tired metaphors of curly page turns and leather bookmarks? We also condensed all the reader settings into themes which feels much more like Instagram’s filters or something, but for books. That’s because the average user doesn’t know the difference between Palatino and Times and Courier, they just like the feel of some things. So we pulled font, type size, background color, texture into themes.

In terms of other technologies, definitely the download and speed of use one. We also have done a lot working with ePub, the standard reflowable ebook technology, but as we develop we want to keep pushing the limits of that. As we think of Oyster and our books as less just on the iPhone or iPad or web, it becomes interesting — how can we show different parts of books, how can we embed books within other pieces of information, there’s a lot of ways books can be broken up. Whereas traditionally books have been thought of as objects you buy from Amazon, it downloads to my device, and then it stops communicating with the outside world. It’s about having books work more like the rest of the internet, and less like a piece of paper.