Interview with Willem Van Lancker, Co-Founder/Designer, Oyster Books

Books / Contributor / Design / Interview

“It's not about the weight of the one title you want to read, but the act of reading across a whole collection.”

Willem Van Lancker is a co-founder and lead on the design team for Oyster Books, which launched last month to much acclaim both in the publishing and tech industries, donned “the Netflix of books.” The informational interface and crisp design interface make this more sophisticated than just a place to watch old TV shows, however. This may be the classy soft open to a more generic marketplace for books, and generic is not a bad thing, it seems.

Paperhouses: How has the launch been going?
Willem: It’s been really awesome to see it grow and see people use it and start to hear people's feedback on what they love about it, what they want to see more of.
Before we were a beta group of about 100 people so it's exciting to see the type of people who are signing up to Oyster first. There've been some surprises and cool stuff.


Paperhouses: What's surprised you?

Well it's interesting. I've worked on technology products that have been both niche and at places like Google that obviously have a wide user base. It's exciting for us because our early users are a diverse group. Books have this interesting equalizing quality to all technology. It's exciting and new for people that are into books, and people more fluent in new tech products, but the product exists because it's about books and they love books

Paperhouses: I can see how a gadget person can benefit from literature and books but how doyou think Oyster is creating technological literacy for bookworms?

This is something we come back to all the time at Oyster, but we’ve built a product that’s a general purpose offering. It's meant to hit a wide audience. That's why we've gone with a simple model: unlimited access for ten bucks a month. In other forms of media people have found that really appealing. We are not trying to build a tool that's only for voracious book readers or only for people that are techy and casual readers. It's a product with a wider audience in mind. In terms of the appeal to the book lover, it's a really great library, and exciting as a new model of consumption. Once you move to that unlimited access, that really shifts the decision-making round of why to start a book, from (asking yourself) “do I want to start this book, and is this the individual title that I want” to “I know I want to read something and I'm going to Oyster to browse and discover, and if I don't finish it I won't feel guilty or bad.” It's all part of this collection. That's something that's core for us; the ability to dive into any book and hopefully get people to read more.

Paperhouses: You mentioned people can browse freely without feeling guilt, but do you mean they don't have to feel bad about not finishing books, or like…

I think that people right now feel a weight of “this is something I have to finish because I paid 10 dollars for it.” It sits on your bookshelf or coffee table or in your iBooks or Kindle. With Oyster it's less about the weight of the one title you want to read, but the act of reading and reading casually across a whole collection.

Paperhouses: You mentioned a broad audience but who do you think is on the outskirts or fringe of that audience? Who is the least likely person you hope will adopt Oyster?

People used to be big readers growing up and some of the guys in our team are kind of like this, they kind of had the love of reading shaken out of them by school, having to read a book they didn't find pleasurable. They had to read 500 pages in a night before an exam, and as technology turned up, they put down books. We want them to turn it back on. It's not about “oh you need to go read this one book and have to know that that book is the one you have to go after,” but you want to read more. It’s the more aspirational side of reading. I'd like to read more, and Oyster can enable that.

Paperhouses: It's interesting you should mention schools because I think for a lot of people and especially those who consider themselves bookworms, they would credit school with fomenting their taste in books.

Well, I'm speaking more to the fact that a lot of us grew up with reading being an entertainment outlet. I think in college and high school you're not reading for pleasure but you're reading for the academic side of it. For some people now, there are so many different outlets to find entertainment–music, TV, movies–it's all there at your fingertips and it hasn't happened for books in the same way. There's a product you can pick up, and you can dive into that media. It's like having to know your way around it before you even get what you want. Someone doesn't know the top fifteen authors to read, or the next ten books they want to read. What we're trying to do at Oyster is give them a way to find books they love.

Paperhouses: How do you position yourselves against libraries and public libraries, where you can and have always been able to freely browse?

I think libraries are a really good community, just like with bookstores or anything else having books. Oyster is complementary. The library helps people read more and find knowledge in their community. Oyster is trying to support that mission and continue to build it. I think the e-book offerings that libraries have are great civic services and it's just a very different service than what we offer.

Paperhouses: Everyone describes Oyster as the Netflix of books, but do you think that's accurate, or how is it not? Where is it like Netflix and where isn't it?

I think the association with media and tech are glommed onto by the press and media, because it’s nice to be able to create those associations in your mind. I think that obviously the subscription model and unlimited access are accurate comparisons. The personalization into the books we show you, too. After that, (the comparison) ends, because consumption of books and movies are very different. A movie can be on in the background and takes a couple hours, and it's not such an immersive and intensive activity like reading a book. As we design the product and develop the product, we keep that in mind: building something that's specifically tailored toward reading books and buying books. Another part of it is, we've worked hard to develop an editorial voice for Oyster much like a local bookstore has great staff recommendations for you. That's something Netflix has also developed. There's a sense of identity and social sharing that we're excited to develop as we grow.

Paperhouses: It sounds almost like Oyster wants to make books less an investment or more disposable. You can just pop in and out and not have to feel such a strong time-investment at least.

You hit the nail on the head.

Paperhouses: What do you think is the most effective way to do that? Is it in design? Is it in content?

There's a multi-part answer to this. The way we've approached it initially is as a design problem. There's an intentional decision to start on the iPhone because we felt it's actually a great place for that common library and unlimited model to shine. It's with you all the time and it's a place where if you're in the subway or waiting for a meeting, having it on your phone is a great way to stay connected to your life. On the design side we've worked to build a reading experience that takes the really long narrative and long set of information that takes 5-10 hours to read and break that down in more manageable bits. So we show you how much more time you have till the end of a chapter, how many more pages are in the book… There's a lot we're doing and we're just getting started. We're just breaking down books and making them these more manageable pieces. I think content-side, we hope that Oyster's service makes it comfortable reading War and Peace but we also build in the ability to look for shorter pieces. You can find content that way too. We're surfacing some of that through editorial.

Paperhouses: I know it's quite early in the game but have you noticed any trends yet in what's most popular or what's getting dropped?

Not too much that we're sharing publicly but we've been excited by the fact that we just anecdotally seen that people pick up many more books than they finish and I think that's what we were excited about. You can dive into a book and start it and decide to read something else. I think there's a lot of this buzz in all kinds of media about discovery and how you create better ways to find the right books, when in fact the best metric is to just read it. If you don't like it, you stop, and if it grabs you then you keep going. That's really cool.

Paperhouses: What's the relationship with publishers been like so far?

We started the company last summer in 2012 and some of the first work we did before anything was ever designed or any line of code was written was we'd meet with authors, editors and agents and think deeply about how to set up this model and how to work directly with publishers to build something sustainable and serve as a new vehicle for deliver8nig books. It's been a conversation since Day 1 and since before the company started, to really build something that has all parties in mind and is a win-win-win (situation). There's been a lot of work on that side. The publishing partners we're working with have over a couple hundred publishers represented on oyster and it's growing all the time, but it's great to see the support from that side of the industry.

Paperhosues: I have to ask but has there been any resistance from any particular group?

No, I mean it's not like there's one group saying “we don't want this,” but like anything you see with movies and music, there's a group of early adopters and then a group that takes longer to get on board. We've definitely seen that but it's typical in anything like that.

Paperhouses: It being the Information Age and our being an Open Source platform, I'm curious what you think is the importance or the bigger role of Oyster to disseminate so much literacy. Why is it important to get more people looking at more books?

I think that there's certainly a really great civic or human role that Oyster can fill in terms of hopefully getting people to read more and find books come back in their lives. And we've seen that happen a bit already. The larger part of it is that there's something about long-form well-written well-thought-out dialogue that helps people in all walks of their lives. I think reading, whether its just to relax and reflect or whether it's really meant to enrich your take on business or something else, it's really important as an information source that is very durable. Anyone who talks about how the future of books is in peril hasn’t realized the long-form narrative has been around since before books. It'll be around long after us.

Paperhouses: So format's changed but content is still king.

Yeah absolutely. That's just intrinsic to people loving stories and wanting to engage with that really deep rich story-telling.

Paperhouses: Another hallmark of Internet technology is the ability for peer-to-peer conversation or comments and that whole functionality. Netflix in the beginning when it was laptops rather than Internet TV, had the comment functionality like any other media platform, but I wonder–again tying it back into the idea of open source–if there is a comment functionality, do you see that will engender new content? Like Netflix is producing original content based on database metrics?

There are a few things to unpack there. First, I think an exciting phenomenon in the past 5-10 years in these subscription services is what having a common library does to social sharing. With a Spotify or Rdio when I share a playlist with you, you can listen to all the songs immediately. You don't have to buy ten albums or burn a CD for someone. It puts the technology and media a little bit out of the way and makes it more about enjoying the content. I've been an Rdio member for two years now and it's changed the way I listen to music. I find people there whose tastes I like and they hunt for good music and pass that knowledge on to me. I think the same is the case with books. They have high social value. Sharing a book with someone and giving recommendations… gifting books is still a popular thing to do. But the ability to do that in an environment where people are sharing the same library is really exciting. Right now the way we've structured Oyster, books are the sharable unit and the interesting thing about books is that you can break this down in a lot of different ways. You can share the title itself or you can share a group of books or you can just dive deeper in a book and share a highlight or a quote or a passage. There are several interesting wiki of information to break down and make sharable.

To your point about user-generated content in the form of data and creative writing that may be happening in comments: there's an exciting future for Oyster with things like notes and highlights, and the ephemera around a book. You could read a copy of Moby Dick marked up by your favorite journalist, or your favorite artists, and read their copy of it. We don't have announced plans of how we're going to be implementing that. But I think everyone reading the same copy and if you have this master copy would be exciting. To your point about data, Netflix has done some exciting things with search and how to draw attention from users, and user-data in aggregate–we know what users are liking, not liking, when they're dropping off of books–that's something that helps enrich the library that we can share with our publishing partners to make sure we acquire the right content.

Paperhouses: What's in store for you guys in the next three and six months?

Right now we're hard at work on our iPad app that's coming out real soon. It'll be similar to the iPhone app but adding some tweaks. (The engineers) did great things on the iPad app. There are some feature developments that have been requested and that we wanted to build. Obviously we had a great response at launch and also a matter of acquiring more content and filling out the library. Those are our near-term goals.

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