(Bloomberg) – Oyster was founded on a novel principle: One day, instead of buying e-books, people would join a service that would provide any title they wanted for a monthly fee. A year and a half after launching such a service, the New York-based startup has decided that people are going to keep buying books after all. On Wednesday the company moved to add an e-bookstore to its subscription service, allowing customers to purchase single books that aren’t available in its lending library.
In one sense, the move is an admission of defeat. Oyster and competitors such as Scribd and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited have been steadily expanding their offerings. Oyster even gained access to the Harry Potter series earlier this year. But publishers simply aren’t willing to give the subscription e-book services enough of the good stuff. Oyster currently offers none of the top 10 New York Times fiction best-sellers and only two of the top 10 nonfiction titles (American Sniper by Chris Kyle, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir). Its competitors aren’t doing any better.
The inability to offer the most popular books is likely to limit the utility of services aiming to be the “Netflix of books,” since it takes mainstream titles to draw mainstream audiences. And no one in the nascent e-book subscription industry is giving any clear indication of subscriber numbers, preferring to cite useless metrics like “total pages read per month.” Both Oyster and Scribd have convinced venture capitalists that they’re on the right track; the companies have raised $14 million and $22 million, respectively.