When the e-book subscription app Oyster launched last year, it was quickly dubbed "the Netflix of books" by the press. But since then, analytics and anecdotes have demonstrated that Oyster's customers actually consume the written word differently from the content they get on other subscription services like Netflix or Spotify.
What they've learned could have ramifications for publications and sites like ours, whose primary product is written content. So what's so different about stuff you read?
"Books are one of the best gifts to give someone," says Willem Van Lancker, an Oyster cofounder and the company's chief product officer. "People really responded fantastically to giving a gift of hundreds of thousands of books."
Van Lancker says this is something really distinctive about being a book business; feature requests for gifting starting rolling in right away. Other subscription platforms didn't add gift subscriptions until later in their life cycles, says Van Lancker—presumably because no one had ever considered that books were (for whatever reason) more giftable than regular media.
Oyster also learned that while customers use their iPhones for "short bursts" of reading during the day, many do the bulk of their reading on days off and in the evening before bed, which means customer service inquiries swing nocturnal.
"The biggest bulk of inquiries and questions we get are between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. Eastern Time," he says. His customer service team rejiggered their schedules to better match their customers'.
Nighttime reading also meant Oyster's developers took pains to make sure the app works well in low light, says Van Lancker. "We took a lot of time standing in closets with our product," he says.
Different genres of literature are popular at different times of day, he says: romance novels are popular in the wee hours of the morning, while mysteries and thrillers get more reading around rush hour.
And different states have different tastes as well. History is more widely read in Michigan and New York, Van Lancker says, while romance is bigger in Texas and Georgia.
"Any given member in Georgia is about 30% more likely to read a romance book than a history book," he says.
Overall, fiction, literature and business are among the most popular categories the app offers. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's memoir Onward has been quite popular, says Van Lancker.
All of this information can naturally be fed into Oyster's automated recommendation system, but even in the age of big data, Van Lancker believes handcrafted editorial recommendations can be at least as important to customers.
"We've seen a connection between crafting Oyster's editorial books—how Oyster kind of feels like a corner bookstore—and people really responding to that," he says. "Books are kind of a special medium, and because you're going to be digging into it for five to 10 hours, having an extra recommendation from someone you come to trust is really important."
Oyster's also learned to heed product recommendations from its entire team, he says.
"We have people from publishing and books, and people from technology," he says. "It's a diverse team and I think it's really worked out well to build a product that has a lot of emotion wrapped up in it."
Similarly, Oyster's made sure to highlight books from a variety of authors and presses big and small, not just surefire bestsellers.
"We make a point to kind of pull in picks from all of our publishing houses and authors," he says. "Just like a great bookstore that has a table laid out to introduce people to new ideas and new stories."
The subscription model can let people explore different books a little more freely and even bring some lapsed bookworms back into the fold, he says.
"The most exciting thing for us is taking someone who isn't a reader and reintroducing them to books," he says, citing subscriber feedback. "They weren't reading books at all, and now Oyster has brought them back into it, and now they're reading a book a month."