Oyster Books–A Raw Deal for Authors? Guest Post by Kevin Brennan


Author photo


Thank you, first, to Francis, for asking me to contribute a post to her blog. She maintains such an eloquent tone here that I’m a little afraid of tarnishing the silver, but since she reads “What The Hell regularly, I’m sure she knew what she was getting into!


As a self-publisher with a newly released novel Yesterday Road I’ve been exploring lots of ways that writers like Francis and me can find and attract readers, so at first I was intrigued by a new concept in “book delivery” – Oyster.

Have you heard of it? No? You will, and probably sooner than later.

Oyster has been described as a Netflix for books, and it works like this: Subscribers pay $9.95 a month and get to browse, download, and read as many books as they want. Pretty simple. And, you can imagine, pretty attractive to a certain kind of reader. According to the web site, there’s “No limit to the number of books you can browse or read simultaneously.”

Currently, subscribing is by invitation only, though you can request an invitation here. As yet, Oyster is a mobile service for iPhone and iPod Touch. The developers are promising an iPad version of the app soon, with something for Android coming down the road. So far, readers can choose from over 100,000 titles, mainly from HarperCollins, but that’s expected to increase when Oyster works out deals with the other big publishing houses. A deal with Smashwords is also in the works, and that’s where we come in.

The practical question is, What’s in it for the writers? Mark Coker of Smashwords, on the verge of releasing a statement with details on the arrangement, claims it’s “an author-friendly deal, so I think you’ll be pleased.” It will be interesting to see what Mark considers “author-friendly” compared with our own sense of fairness.

In the long term, will it be better to sell individual copies of our books via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and other online systems, or to participate in server-based distribution like Oyster? The closest real-world model is not really Netflix so much as Spotify for music distribution, and believe me, musicians are not happy with the payment structure there. Anecdotally, some songs getting streamed hundreds of thousands of times yield the rights holder less than twenty bucks. I fear that a service like Oyster will begin, or rather continue, to devalue the product it’s ostensibly supporting.

But what is that product? Is it really books? If you get a chance to read Jaron Lanier’s fascinating, Who Owns The Future, you’ll get a glimpse of the hidden foundation of the new economy – what he calls Siren Servers. These are the monopolizing entities that control the flow of information, and they don’t care about “product” (or compensation of the content creators) so much as influence and reach. Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple — they’re all about big data, centralization, and making themselves indispensable. Just as the recorded music business has essentially collapsed thanks to the Siren Server phenomenon, I wouldn’t be surprised to see publishing fall into that black hole as well. Newspapers are already there.

The Oyster model fits right into this idea. It isn’t selling books per se but rather access to a trove of books. Individual titles will yield some level of micropayments to the authors — probably already-popular names — but there’s no way to know yet whether they will be mere tokens or might actually pay some bills for less well-knowns.

Laura Hazard Owen, who wrote a detailed piece on the app in the online publication GigaOm says, “Oyster wouldn’t get into details with me about how it’s compensating publishers and authors, and wouldn’t state whether newer, more well-known titles are getting better royalties than older ones.” Frankly, this reticence makes me think we’re looking at more of a Spotify model than a royalty system based on copies viewed (as if they’d been sold). Would you rather, as an author, receive a few pennies per view or a set percentage of cover price per copy sold? And what will count as a view? Completion of a book, or the downloading of more than a sample? It seems like these little details will matter.

Another angle altogether, though, is the exposure we might gain by hopping aboard a potentially popular trend. Oyster will have a recommendation algorithm much like Amazon’s, so an unknown writer might well gain some new eyeballs in that lottery. Readers browsing by category could pick up an indie writer’s novel on the basis of cover art, ratings, and books that it appears to be similar to. That’s not a bad thing at all.

I suppose we have to face facts, here in the early part of the 21st century. The game has changed. These “advances” are coming, and we’re not in control. Sure, we can advocate for our own interests and fight for a fair deal, but most of all we have to stay educated and make sure we understand the marketplace.

We don’t really have a choice, do we? The successful independent writers will be the ones who learn how to use these new tools to their advantage. Oyster is probably just the beginning of a new paradigm.

Additional links:

Business Insider

Tech Crunch

Publishing Perspectives

Links to Kevin’s work

Yesterday Road photo


Yesterday Road on Amazon.com – right here

Yesterday Road in other formats – right here




Our Children photo


Our Children Are Not Our Children on Amazon.com – right here

Our Children Are Not Our Children in other formats – right here



Kevin’s book, Parts Unknown, is available directly from the author – right here 

Kevin can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

19 comments on “Oyster Books–A Raw Deal for Authors? Guest Post by Kevin Brennan

  1. I just want to thank Kevin for such a thoughtful guest post. He sure didn’t need to worry about measuring up to what he calls my blog’s eloquent tone 🙂

  2. Kate Sparkes says:

    This sounds horrible to me. Everyone is trying to convince authors to give away their work in exchange for “exposure” rather than money, and very few writers seem to benefit from it, especially when EVERYONE is fighting for a tiny sliver of the spotlight. I know that people say giving our work away doesn’t de-value it, but it does train readers to expect full novels for free, and I can’t really get behind that idea. :/

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head, Kate – readers come to expect freebie e-books. Then I start to wonder and how much anyone values anything that is offered for free. If we don’t value the work we’ve put into writing a book, how can we expect anyone else to. Complicated business, for sure.

  3. This is an interesting concept, albeit one that seems to want to take something that ‘Indie’ authors have put long, hard hours into writing, editing, and marketing, and offer it up for a mere pittance. In conversations and reading past experiences from other independently published authors, I’ve discovered that offering up ‘freebies’ of e-books hasn’t been working so much to their advantage as initially hoped. I can personally vouch for that myself as I had become involved in a ‘giveaway’ of the e-book version of my book in exchange for reader reviews . . . out of the 20 or so that ‘won’ a copy of the e-book, which was early this year, I’ve found only TWO reviews given. That is not to say that they haven’t read the book . . . perhaps they are just slow readers . . . but I personally have received more feedback from those who have actually purchased both the e-book or the hardcopy versions. Writing is my passion, but it is not something that I have a desire to just give away . . . and I don’t believe any author wants to put all the time and effort into their writing just to see it devalued uncontrolled by ‘mass distribution’.

    What is to keep ‘person A’ from downloading one of their ‘bulk copies’ to ‘person B’ and so on down the line to ‘person z’ . . . metaphorically speaking, that would be over 26 (and that is just using the alphabet system) people that now have a virtually ‘free’ copy of your e-book? The potential for abuse of such a system is very real, and to an author who is wishing to make a living with their writing, can be nothing less than detrimental.

    • Thanks so much for weighing in with such a comprehensive comment and for the reblog. The whole idea of giving away our work for free is a topic that we need to enter into with in-depth dialogue and thought. Hopefully, Kevin’s thoughtful post will get more than a few of us thinking and talking.

  4. Reblogged this on anastaciamoore and commented:
    What say you? Will the “Oyster” open up to grant you a huge, sparkling pearl . . . or a lump of coal?

  5. Gwen Stephens says:

    Fascinating information. At first I thought it sounded like a great new exposure avenue for authors until you got into the nitty gritty of how it works. I’m not sure what’s in it for the authors. But I’m sure you’re right, in that it’s the tip of the iceberg.

  6. Reblogged this on What The Hell and commented:
    This is the guest post I did for Francis Guenette’s blog, Disappearing In Plain Sight. There are a number of good comments on the post already, so go on over and join in the discussion. And be sure to check out Francis’ novel too — aptly named, Disappearing In Plain Sight.

  7. I’ve shared this on my Facebook author page, Kevin and Francis … I must say it is all very discouraging and I can’t think what the answer to combat yet another disappointing blow to indie publishing.
    But I’m a writer … I can’t stop writing even if it turns out to be only for myself in the long run.

  8. Bulletin hot off the presses: Smashwords sent out the Oyster announcement yesterday with information on the deal. It’s summarized here: https://www.smashwords.com/about/beta .

    Actually, it sounds pretty reasonable. Authors get 60% of the cover price when an Oyster subscriber reads more than 10% of the book. Of course, the devil’s in the details, so we’ll see how it develops as Oyster becomes more popular.

  9. SJ Main says:

    Thanks for this really interesting post. I hadn’t heard any of that news previously. I guess time will tell who the winners and losers of schemes like this will be.

    • Yes, for sure – time will tell. All we can do is keep trying to be informed and make the best choices we can. The waters seem shark infested to me at times but we can’t let that stop us.

  10. Stopping by from Indies Unlimited. The Smashwords Oyster distribution terms as they were published last week looked like a good deal for me. Unfortunately, as Oyster expands I suspect the terms will eventually shift so they won’t be so much in the author’s favor. Or maybe I’m just too cynical.

    • As Kevin is pretty good at pointing out – the devil will be in the details as time goes by. We’ll just have to watch and see. And no – I don’t thinkyou are being too cynical.

  11. […] Oyster Books – A Raw Deal for Authors? Guest Post by Kevin Brennan […]

I would really love to hear what you think about this post . . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s