Bonnie Cha

New E-Book Services Borrow a Page From Netflix

If you’re a voracious reader, you know that keeping up with your habit can get expensive, whether you’re buying physical books or e-books. The public library makes for a good alternative, but sometimes there’s a waiting list for a title. And if you’re looking for a digital version to borrow, your options are limited. But what if you could instantly access an unlimited number of books right on your smartphone or tablet every month, for about the price of a paperback?

That’s the sales pitch for two new e-book subscription services I’ve been testing, called Oyster and Scribd. Frequently described as a “Netflix for e-books,” these services allow you to read as many books as you want for a monthly fee. Oyster costs $9.95 per month, and Scribd is $8.99 per month.

To make it worth the cost, the services must have a good selection of content, and that’s something both companies are working on. Oyster currently offers more than 100,000 in-copyright books from hundreds of publishers, including HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Melville House and Rodale. Scribd’s catalog also includes more than 100,000 titles, from the likes of HarperCollins, Workman, Rosetta Books and Kensington.

In the grand scheme of things, that’s really not a lot of books, and both services are still missing works from four of the five big publishing houses (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster), though they say they’re constantly updating their library with new content. I have a long list of titles on my reading wish list, such as Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” and Susan Casey’s “The Wave,” and I was only able to find a couple of them on Oyster and Scribd.

But that doesn’t mean I was lacking for reading material — quite the opposite, actually. Both services had a nice range of current and older titles, and the curated sections and categories were a great way to discover new books.

Oyster and Scribd said their services are designed for anyone and everyone, but I think they’re best suited for avid readers, since it can save them money in the long run. For those who read one or two books a month, it might not be worth the monthly commitment.

Of the two, I enjoyed Oyster’s user experience better, but the downside is that the app is currently only available for Apple devices running iOS 7. The company said an Android app is in the works for next year.

I downloaded the dedicated iPad app, and it’s beautiful and easy to navigate. At the top, you’ll see your most recent books, and the app allows you to store up to 10 books offline, so you can read them even if you don’t have an Internet connection. Below that, there are curated sections, such as Oyster’s Picks, Chillers and Cliffhangers, and Sports Culture, and you can tap on each book cover to get more details, such as a synopsis and related content.

You can also search for books by title, author or keyword, using the magnifying glass in the upper right-hand corner. There you’ll also find more general categories, like Fiction and Literature, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and History.

I tried looking up some books that I’ve been wanting to read, but wasn’t very successful. Instead, I ended up perusing the different sections looking for reading material, which is what I often do when I have time to go to a physical bookstore.

“Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff, Charles Bukowski’s “Ham on Rye” and John Reed’s “Snowball’s Chance” are just three of the titles I added to my reading list.

Oyster keeps the reading experience pretty simple. There aren’t any fancy animations when turning pages. Instead, you can swipe up or tap on the screen to advance to the next page. You can also adjust the font size and background theme.

There’s a social aspect, too. You can find and follow friends using Oyster via Facebook, Twitter, or your contact list, to see what they’re reading and vice versa. But I appreciate that this feature isn’t forced on you. There’s even a “Read Privately” option, in case you don’t want something published to your public feed.

Scribd, which first began as a document-sharing service, works very similarly to Oyster. The company offers an iOS and Android app. But, even better, you can access your library on almost any device or platform simply by logging into your account via a Web browser. For my tests, I used the iPad app.

The main page provides a long stream of curated lists and categories. Compared to Oyster, I thought Scribd offered some more interesting and specific topics, like Noir and Women Sleuths. They even had a section dedicated to the subject of cheese. Scribd also displays a greater number of titles under each section. But this also made it a little overwhelming, and the app felt more sluggish than Oyster.

You can, of course, search for a book by title, author or keyword. I had a bit more success with Scribd in finding some of the books on my reading list, such as “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Craft Rubin. This is one I’ve been debating about buying for a while, and the nice thing about Scribd and Oyster is that it makes that decision easier, since you’re not paying for each individual book.

Once you’ve selected a book, you can add it to your media library, store it on your device for offline reading (up to 10 books), or read it immediately. There are options to change the size and style of font and background color, and you can turn pages by either swiping right to left, or tapping once on the screen. Scribd also offers social features, where you can follow people and share what you’re reading via email, Twitter or Facebook.

Like Netflix has done for movies and TV shows, Scribd and Oyster provide readers with all-you-can-eat access to books for less than the price of most novels. Both services still need to expand their libraries, but each offers a free-month trial, and I’d say they’re worth a try.

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