Last week, GigaOm (among others) reported that a startup venture, Oyster, had been given $3 million in funding to help make it a "Spotify for books."
Right now, Oyster has an idea; it lacks an app, a price and a launch date. Presumably, the $3 million in backing (with a lead from libertarian investor Peter Thiel) will help convince publishers the firm can be a serious contender.
The thing is, there's a company in Spain, 24 Symbols, that already offers an app, a price and a service. It has been up and running for more than a year. In June 2011, The Next Web even covered 24 Symbols as a "Spotify for books".
In the last two years, 24 Symbols has launched, gathered content libraries and developed a browser-based and then an app interface. It even sells a white-label version to anyone who wants to offer its own "Spotify for books." It joins Audiobooks.com as a content-driven subscription service for the book business.
24 Symbols and Audiobooks.com are not the only subscription services competing for attention, and I don't want to deny Oyster money just because they aren't the first. But I think the announcement potentially outlines a problem that publishers themselves helped to create: a resistance to new business models, including subscriptions.
Any time a new service tries to engage book publishers, it has to run a gauntlet of objections to its product and pricing models. Ask any start-up how much work goes into convincing established publishers to play ball. You'll get an earful.
The result? For the most part, only the well-funded survive. Unfortunately for book publishers who like to think of themselves as cultural defenders, that puts long-term control in the hands of the financial people who made bets on companies like Oyster.
Subscription services are here, whether content owners like them or not. It would do publishers a world of good to cultivate an independent like 24 Symbols, at a time when it might grow to be an ally of the industry. The well-funded are appealing, and they come at a price.
A bit of disclosure: I have met Justo Hidalgo, who founded 24 Symbols, and I heard him speak about the company at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. As part of a session at O'Reilly Media's Tools of Change conference there, 24 Symbols shared the stage with Valobox, an interesting "pay-as-you-read" model for content consumption. We have no business dealings with 24 Symbols, and no one at the company was aware of or involved with this post.