Predictions for the future of the book have never been great, even when Gutenberg was alive. In the wake of the digital revolution, the longevity of the book industry seemed particularly bleak, with doomsday predictions for publishers, readership, and authors.
What has never changed, however, is the power of a great story, which cannot, will not, and should not die. Those who can identify the perfect medium through which the next generation will want to read are those who will unlock the future of the book.
Enter Eric Stromberg, Andrew Brown, and Willem Van Lancker, who in 2013 decided that the book’s future is not on a tablet, and it’s not on a Kindle. It’s on your iPhone.
When the three twenty-somethings launched Oyster, they had no experience in the book industry. They had followed the success of Netflix and wondered why a similar platform didn’t exist for books. Oyster’s business model resembles that of its film counterpart; Oyster users pay $9.95 per month to access a curated library of over one million books. In the process, they also find a beautifully designed platform that allows them to read those books right on their phones. Oyster books can also be read on iPads, Android phones and tablets, and can be purchased individually through Oyster’s new ebook store.
One of Oyster’s chief hopes is that users don’t just find specific books they’re looking for, but discover new books they didn’t even know they wanted. Currently, 80% of the books read on Oyster are books that readers found through the platform. The level of customer engagement flies in the face of the belief that national readership is dying; Oyster readers spend as much time on Oyster as they do on Facebook per day—about an hour.
A crucial ingredient to the company’s success has been the innovative design of Chief Product Officer Willem Van Lancker, whose work has tackled a central conundrum in digital publishing: how do you design a product that captures everything people love about reading physical books, with none of the hassles?
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What’s your most audacious goal?
We’re looking to move a medium that’s thousands of years old into the future. From storytelling to the scroll to the printed book, there have been many large transitions concerning what narrative is. Now, we’re at the next frontier. Books will either evolve and change to suit people’s lives, or else they’ll be left behind—a sturdy but outdated medium. We want to help make that transition the best it can be and give books the brightest future for all readers.
Tell me about the future of books. Where are we headed?
Even though every form of media has transitioned into digital, ebooks for the most part still act like print. When you download a book, it’s excommunicated from the rest of the world—it just sits on your digital bookshelf as a finite object. The future lies in unlocking that. So maybe that means getting a book messaged to you like a text message from a friend, or networking books together to foster conversations.
This doesn’t mean rethinking how books are created, just how they’re distributed. Books are just a container for long-form narratives and stories. We want to answer the question: how do you make these stories adapt and evolve with the rest of the internet? How do they feel just as at home on your phone as they do in print? That’s Oyster’s mission.
But with everyone’s attention span decreasing (or so it seems), will people even want to read books?
Yes, absolutely. In some ways, books are a lot like movies. People will still go watch a three-hour film even though they could also just watch a six second Vine video.
There are certain situations where (very) short stories are great. But to get into real depth, you want to dedicate more time to the content and truly immerse yourself into a story. We are creating the best way to read on mobile—so you can enjoy that experience wherever and whenever you want.
To you, what characterizes good design?
It’s an old adage, but form always follows function. Especially with software interfaces, you can get caught up trying to be flashy or differentiated with unique patterns or interactions, but ultimately great product design can act as a utility to anyone—first and foremost. That’s the step one and where most of the industry is still focused.
The second step, which is really just authorship, is bringing your perspective, taste, and style to the product. There is an incredible amount of space for creativity and expression in digital product design but it can only occur if the thing really works first. That’s how we make decisions here at Oyster, and hopefully a great and memorable product comes from it.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Never ask for permission. That’s been a theme throughout my entire life—whether it’s in building a business or studying back in college. For example, I studied at RISD, but took all my liberal arts classes at Brown and broke a few rules doing so. I started a conference to bring people I admired to campus, so we could all learn from them. To this day, it’s still a student-led organization. We could have just asked the teachers to do these things (which would have taken years), but instead, we just did it.
Then, when the three of us started Oyster, none of us had a background in books. Eric would take meetings with agents and publishers, and everyone said that it was just never going to happen. But we kept with it, and solved problem after problem put in front of us. If we had listened and waited for permission, Oyster would never have existed. I think this is probably true of every successful business today.
What was your nerdiest passion in college?
I mean, typography and graphic design are already pretty geeky… But I guess the nerdiest would have to be is that I used to (and still do) collect old art & design books. I even once entered a book collection competition—I think I got second place.
I love print, and I love things that were intended to be made as an object. When you see real intention behind something, that’s a work of art. I’ve moved around a lot (cross-country a few times since college) and my books are one of the only things I’ve kept. Everything else I’ve sold… except for a beautiful, but very uncomfortable, mid-century sofa that I can’t seem to unload.
How can IVY members help support you?
Make reading a habit in your life! I’m appalled when people say they don’t read. Some people wear it as a badge of pride that they’re too caught up in other things to find time for it. Too busy is never a good excuse—for anything.
Reading fiction is critical to understanding and empathizing with your world—both professionally and personally. It’s how you become a more interesting, thoughtful, and well-rounded person. Studies have shown that fiction improves empathy, giving us the ability to step into another’s shoes, and may alter brain connectivity in a way that makes it easier to see the world from others’ perspective and situation. Plus it gives you some great fodder for party conversations.
You don’t always have to be reading the most ground-breaking, deep literature, either. You can get a lot from Young Adult fiction if that’s what you find compelling. The important thing is to take some time to step beyond the bounds of your own world and experience to imagine what could be rather than what is or was.
Willem is an IVY Member (NYC). Connect and collaborate with him here! To learn more about IVY, please visit www.ivy.com.