Re/code was first to report Google’s acqui-hiring part of Oyster’s team.
Oyster’s fate highlights the difficulty of building a standalone business focused on digital book subscriptions (and e-books more generally) against much larger technology and publishing businesses.
The three leading startups — Oyster, Scribd and Entitle — initially touted the potential for businesses in the e-book subscription market to one day rival the likes of billion-dollar companies like Netflix and Spotify. Now two of those three businesses are dead.
Entitle (formerly eReatah) quietly shut down this summer. Oyster is expected to help Google’s books team in New York compete with Apple and Amazon by improving design and curation, but Google is not yet committing to pursuing the e-book subscription option, according to people familiar with the matter. Google declined to comment on future product plans.
“It’s proof that a standalone subscription offering for general e-books, as opposed to something in a market niche, can’t work,” says Mike Shatzkin, a book publishing consultant and founder of The Idea Logical Company.
Scribd, the last of the three subscription startups still standing, had established itself as a document sharing service for six years before investing in e-book subscriptions. Amazon unveiled an e-book subscription option of its own last year, but it’s just part of a suite of book services for the $250 billion technology giant.
Some familiar with Oyster’s situation, who were not authorized to speak about the deal on the record, suggested that Google’s acquisition signals this is becoming a market for the bigger players rather than the startups. Industry watchers we spoke with also noted that businesses like Amazon, Apple and Google, with greater financial resources larger existing audiences, who have the potential to make good on the promise of reading unlimited digital books each month.
Just because Google has the potential to go this route doesn’t mean it will be worth the effort, even with Oyster’s team under its roof.
“The book business is beneath a rounding error,” says Shatzkin. “There are people in Google who worry about the book business, but there’s nobody at the top of Google who could justify spending more than a couple of minutes a month worrying about the book business.”
If that’s true, the Oyster deal may not represent a new page for the concept of e-book subscriptions so much as the final word.