Who Is The ‘Spotify For Books?’

Every startup that emerges, in promoting itself (particularly during the funding phase), is likely to refer to itself as “Uber for [fill-in-the-blank].” It’s an understandable desire; Uber is arguably one of the most successful and disruptive services to emerge in the modern era, and the mere summoning of its name — accurately or otherwise (usually otherwise) — in association with a nascent company crystallizes a picture of the kind of splash that company is hoping to make.

But in the subscription eBook game, contrarily, it appears that nobody wants to be Uber.

They all want to be Spotify.

Subscription eBook services don’t want to deal in the same media — music — as the Stockholm-based streaming service that launched in 2008, mind you; they merely, like so many Uber wannabes in pretty much every other space, want to be thought of in the same terms of consumer convenience and profitability (Spotify was most recently valued at $8.5 billion, according to Bloomberg — that’s eight and a half unicorns!) that the more established company enjoys.

Unlike the case for consumer-facing companies that draw (almost always their own) comparisons to Uber — with the notable exception of Lyft, which actually does trade in the same space as the current vanguard in ridesharing services (and could most accurately be described as “the Lyft of Uber”) — one could argue that there has yet to emerge a clear “winner,” as it were, in the subscription eBook space, and therefore not one that can lay a defining claim on the “Spotify for books” title.

So which one tried it first?

Although Amazon, unsurprisingly, was the first major service to debut a book “Lending Library” on its Kindle eReader platform in November of 2011, it didn’t make a grab for the Spotify name-by-association at the time (probably because it had the fairly recognizable name of the biggest eCommerce company in the world — “Amazon” — to fall back on).

Rather, it was Oyster, the subscription-based mobile app that offered users access to an unlimited library of digital books for a monthly fee, which in October of 2012 celebrated an early $3 million funding round by calling itself “the Spotify of books.” The name took hold at other publications (albeit with a tweaking of the preposition from “of” to “for”), and it appeared that the die had been cast.

That is until December of 2012, when GigaOM — one of the very first outlets (if not the first) to have widely promoted Oyster as “the Spotify of books” — in revisiting the company along with a couple of other similar services that had popped up, 24Symbols and Bookboard, took the wind out of the sails it had raised by questioning the very validity of a “Spotify of books” business model. Cold-blooded stuff, GigaOM; everybody had thought you and Oyster were friends.

But the field had opened up for a new contender for the “Spotify of/for books” title. Enter Scribd, in October of 2012, a book subscription service with the bona fides of having been a document-hosting firm. Among the selling points was the startup’s $9 a month fee; less impressive was that it only had a deal with one major publisher at launch — HarperCollins — and that it lacked (at the time) a Kindle app.

Nevertheless, with its CEO Trip Adler telling Fast Company (which had previously jumped on board with Oyster as “the Spotify of books”) that Scribd saw itself as “the library of the future” (space library!), the “Spotify of books” title appeared to belong to it.

“Given the success of Netflix in video and Spotify in music,” Adler went on to tell Fast Company, “it’s inevitable that you’re going to have a similar service in the book space — and it could be a really big business.”

And it was! … For Oyster, a month later, when it officially launched its iPhone app that offered a catalog in excess of 100,000 titles for $9.95 a month; and then, a month after that, when the service was made available on the iPad. Sorry, Scribd: the title of “Spotify for books” once again belonged to Oyster.

And Oyster held that title for a whole other month, until The Guardian decided to weigh in from across the pond and announced that, given the financial troubles that were plaguing the publishing industry, it was “time to create a Spotify for books.” This no doubt came as news to Oyster, which was mentioned in the Guardian piece (along with Scribd and the hanging-in-there 24Symbols) and thought that it had already done that.

Not so, according to The Guardian, and the field was open once again. What unranked upstart would emerge from out of nowhere, shocking all retail analysts to claim the …

Just kidding; it was Amazon and everybody saw it coming.

In July of 2014, the very company that had all but annihilated physical bookstores dropped its Kindle Unlimited subscription service that offered more than 600,000 eBooks and thousands of Audible audiobooks with unlimited access for $9.99 a month. You’ll win absolutely nothing if you correctly guess that the service was immediately referred to as “Spotify for eBooks,” because of course everyone can guess that.

By the beginning of the following year, The Economist was — as other publications had before it — questioning if any “Spotify for books” could ever topple the traditional publishing industry. Oyster scored the “Harry Potter” series for its library and, in the spring, expanded to include eBooks for purchase alongside its subscription service. The latter move compelled Forbes to circle back and cast doubts on the veracity of subscription eBook services.

Just last month, Amazon announced that its robot can read its books to you.

So, it’s Amazon. Amazon is the “Spotify of/for books/eBooks.” Sorry if you thought this was going to be one of those articles whose title asks a question but whose body doesn’t answer it.

Nope. Asked and answered.



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