E-book services offer a library of choices

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Anick Jesdanun

Own a tablet or a smartphone? Then for a few bucks a month, you can have a (virtual) library in your pocket or carrying case.

Two startups are trying to do for e-books what Netflix does for movies: Oyster and Scribd let you read as many books as you want for a fixed monthly price — $10 for Oyster and $9 for Scribd.

I was skeptical at first. I can never find enough time to read, and I’m picky about what I do read. I was worried about their limited book selections.

But I found plenty to read in no time, and I found myself reading more than I normally would. There are enough books on these e-book services to keep you busy for years. Oyster has more than 500,000 titles, while Scribd has more than 400,000. 

These services are great if you have a long weekend or a vacation coming up or, as in my case, three weeks of travels from California to New York.

Just don’t think it’ll be the same as walking into a library and finding just about any book you want.

How good is the selection?

I checked several titles from my wish list and asked colleagues for other suggestions, including a few for kids or in foreign languages. Of the 75 titles I checked, Oyster had 17 and Scribd had 16.

For some popular novels, such as The Hunger Games series and The Fault in Our Stars, I got readers’ guides and other companions, but not the actual books.

Both services have selected titles from Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and lots of smaller publishers. But other major U.S. publishers — Hachette, Macmillan and Penguin Random House — remain holdouts. And even when there’s a deal with a publisher, newer books tend to be excluded.

Avid readers won’t be bored, though. When I signed up, Scribd asked about the types of books I like. Oyster didn’t, but still made good recommendations based on what other subscribers are reading.

I quickly found about two dozen books between the two services. Each time I added a title, I got recommendations for more.

I just finished books on lobster populations and the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company. I’m now reading about Lance Armstrong and the doping scandal — another book I wouldn’t have known about if it hadn’t popped up on Scribd.

In that sense, both services are much like Netflix. Netflix’s streaming selection looks poor when you are searching for a specific title, but Netflix is smart enough to recommend enough movies to keep you paying $8 or $9 a month.

You’ll need the apps

Neither Oyster nor Scribd works on dedicated e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite. Rather, you need a device that lets you install apps.

Both work on iPhones, iPads and Android devices, including Kindle Fire tablets. Oyster also works on Nook tablets, while Scribd has apps for Windows devices.

Only Scribd lets you read on Web browsers on personal computers, though Oyster plans to add that soon.

Apps for both services offer features typical for e-books. You can start a book on one device and pick up where you left off on another, though I’ve often run into syncing problems with both.

You can see where you are in a book, change text size and even add notes. The options aren’t as extensive as what I’m used to with Kindle devices and apps, though.

Oyster lets you store up to 10 books per device to take with you on the road, while Scribd lets you save up to 20 books. Both services permit reading on up to six devices.

Of the two, I like Oyster’s apps and e-book selection better, and it’s been adding features and device support quickly to catch up with Scribd. But it’s also $1 a month more.

I tend to prefer distraction-free reading on a dedicated e-reader, but phones and tablets work when I’m able to exercise some discipline from checking email and Facebook. Plus, I’m more likely to be carrying a phone, so I’m able to get reading done while waiting for a bus or tardy friends.

What about Amazon?

There are plenty of other ways to get e-books for free or for a set price. Check your local library for starters.

If you have Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime membership, you can read an e-book for free each month if you also have a Kindle device or the Fire phone, though you’re not offered everything that Amazon makes available for purchase.

That’s where the new Kindle Unlimited service comes in. The $10 a month Kindle Unlimited lets you download 10 books at a time on up to six devices. Those devices don’t have to be Amazon devices, as Prime requires. But the selection is somewhat limited; I only found six of the 75 books I was looking for.

But Kindle Unlimited beats its rivals in several ways. It has 2,000 audiobooks from Amazon’s Audible business. They’re synchronized to the corresponding books, so if you need to break off reading to drive, you can have the audiobook play instead, starting where you left off reading.

Also, Kindle apps are available for a greater range of devices. Oyster works on iPhones, iPads and Android devices. Scribd supports those, plus Macs and Windows devices. Kindle does all that, plus webOS and BlackBerry devices.

— AP