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Episode VIII: "Every book gets a fair shot"

Published 4/1/15
In this installment, I speak with Kevin Nguyen, the Editorial Director over at Oyster. Topics include digital discovery, design, Netflix, Kindle, privacy, algorithms, genre, indie publishers & more.

I’m here with Kevin Nguyen, the Editorial Director over at Oyster. Invoking one brand to describe another is probably a faux pas, but I’m surely not the first to do it: Oyster is the Netflix for books.

Launched in late 2013, Oyster clearly has its heart on both coasts. It’s received investment from Founders Fund, of Peter Thiel fame, and feels like a mega-stocked venture—but there’s emphasis on editorial quality. There’s The Oyster Review for starters, with pieces on the New York Review of Books and Philip Roth, and others contributed by Bookforum.

And, of course, there’s Kevin. He reviews books for Grantland, has published online at The Paris Review, The Atlantic and The Millions, and, most importantly, has strong Twitter game.

First things first. You’re currently a kilomile away. To bridge the digital divide, would you kindly describe your current environs?

I'm in an overly warm office, surrounded by similarly warm people.

Very nice (and sweet). My second question is a two-parter: a) What, exactly, does the Editorial Director at Oyster do? b) Are you not supposed to say “It’s the Netflix for books”?

Being the editorial director at Oyster, it means I oversee all of the editorial curation in our app and run our literary magazine The Oyster Review. Which is a lot of fun.

It’s not a perfect comparison, but “the Netflix of books” is pretty useful shorthand for getting across the idea that we’re a streaming service for books. So we’re okay with it.

You mentioned that you oversee editorial curation. Obviously Oyster would like to be as much a part of the discovery process as possible. How do you see yourself fitting into how people hear about books?

Discovery is a huge part of why and how people use Oyster today. For us, about 80% of books are found through discovery, and only 20% through search—that’s flipped in most traditional retail channels. We’re really proud of that.

Do you think that takes some value away from other means: word of mouth, reviews, best-of lists?

We see all these things as complementary to the discovery experience. They’re all about helping people find great books they’ll love. I think a lot of the traditional means of book discovery have not yet a equivalent in the digital space, which is a fun problem that we’re trying to solve.

Very fair. On the topic of problems: What do you think is one problem book streaming services have to deal with that movie streaming services don’t? How about vice-versa?

Discovery is a lot more important for books, because when someone chooses to read something, that’s a much bigger commitment than an episode of a TV show. Reading is a more active experience that watching TV or a film, so I think it’s imperative that we get you into a book you’ll love.

I also think design is really important to the reading experience. With Netflix, you’re only looking at Netflix’s UI before you get into a movie. With Oyster, you’re looking at Oyster the whole time. So we have to really nail the visual experience in a way I don’t think video services have had to.

As for vice versa, I’m not an expert in Netflix’s business, but I am sure they had a challenge educating people to what exactly a streaming service is. They didn’t have the ability to call themselves the Oyster of movies. But… they could now ;)

It's true—you are looking at Oyster the whole time, and your design shows your awareness to that fact. But digital publishing is a very unsteady landscape, and it's very possible Oyster will fit in much differently in the future.

If you use a Kindle, you probably don’t use Oyster. What about the future where we have a more prominent third party, agnostic device—do you see Oyster’s role yielding some of that UI?

We don’t really think that’s the future—it’s already happening. You’re seeing the sales of Kindle devices slow down, and we’re seeing more and more reading being done on tablets and particularly smartphones.

That's fair. What I mean is—does Oyster ever fit into a non-app-based device?

No plans for that at the moment!

I want to switch gears a little and talk data. It’s one of the biggest advantages digital retailers have. It has the potential to be incredibly useful in discovery. As a curator, you would especially gain from its use. The flip-side is privacy, which is something everyone favors abstractly but isn’t really sure how to think about it exactly. How does Oyster view the issue, and has it established a line in the sand (or will it)?

Privacy is always an important concern for us, so we make sure the best security measures are put in place any time we build something.

We do look at data in aggregate to give us insight about how people read help us learn how we can make the reading experience on Oyster better.

For example, we know that people who start reading Philip K. Dick really love his work. However, people sometimes feel overwhelmed by his number of books there are to choose from and don’t know where to start. That informed our choice to put together Reader’s Guides—including one on Philip K. Dick—that give readers the background and context to decide where best to dive in.

I assume "aggregate" means that you won't group individual data for the sake of advertising?

Yeah, we don't sell any user data for advertising.

Not being "overwhelmed" is crucial to a service that offers more than a million of anything. It's also your specialty. How else do you attack that problem?

It comes back to discovery. Through editorial curation and data science and collaborations between those two teams, we surface the books we think people will like most. We also think design plays a crucial role in reducing the friction between a reader looking for a book and starting one.

We actually just re-designed the “Home” section of our app with the goal of making the book discovery experience more personalized and engaging. It’s also really pretty.

How do you mean by "personalized"?


There it is.


To call algorithms "crucial" is such an understatement. But, in a surreal way, it's impossible to sell a customer on how "good" your algorithms are—you just can't put it into words. So to ask the impossible, how "good" are your algorithms?

I'm no data scientist, but I think they're the best.

Can I assume as the Editorial Director you handle all genres?

My expertise is definitely in literary fiction, but yeah, we're thinking about all genres. Different people on the team are experts in different areas.

Do you think Oyster's algorithms (or those in general) could reach the point of evaporating genre?

Oh man, good question. I don’t think the notion of “genre” will ever completely disappear—a genre will always be a great signal or hint to what a book is—but I do think it will become less imperative to the book’s identity. Everyone’s always talking about “crossover” books. I hope that notion goes away, and books are recognized by merit and not for “being surprisingly literary for a thriller.”

Well, I couldn't agree more. And I want to discuss merit, or what that might signify. One of the advantages of streaming (probably "the" advantage) is that readers might be more apt to try something new. That means, giving glances to smaller publishers or self-published books. In your curation, are you totally publisher-agnostic, are you trying to get smaller presses in the fold, or are you just looking to get the best book in the hands of your readers?

Only a very small subset of books get a significant amount of marketing behind them each year. A lot of that money goes toward paid placement in retailers. As a result, it’s hard for a reader to walk into a store (physical or online) and not just find top sellers. On Oyster, all our curation is editorial, meaning every book gets a fair shot based on its quality. That’s why you’ll see a lot of independent publishers represented in Oyster—they’re showing up because their books are great.

I wish every reader could read those first two sentences.

I know!

Going through the lists on The Oyster Review, I have to say I'm very impressed in the love you show small and experimental presses.

We're almost at time, so I'll let you go, but I have one last question. I’m a big, big reader, and I've just decided to join a streaming service. Why do I join Oyster over Scribd and Kindle Unlimited?

I don’t want to say much about the competition, but we’re the only true books company. We don’t do anything else. Oyster has the best library—and that doesn’t just mean the most books (which we have), but also the highest-quality books. If you’re interested in discovering something unexpected and great, I think you’ll be very happy with Oyster.

Thanks for your words, Kevin. This was a lot of fun.

Same! 0s&1s looks rad.