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Monday, February 17, 2014

Oyster vs. Scribd: Digging a Little Deeper

It's been about a week since I started my free trials of Oyster and Scribd. I've taken to reading a book from one and then reading the next book from the other. (It's my version of trying to be fair.)

So far I've read or re-read Wuthering Heights (Scribd), The Hangman's Daughter (Oyster), The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms (Scribd), and A Reliable Wife (Oyster).  I'm currently reading I Suck at Girls (by Justin Halpern of "Shit My Dad Says" fame) on Scribd, but haven't gotten far enough to decide if it's worth continuing.  I tried a couple of romances on Oyster, but lost interest in both (one almost immediately and the other about halfway through).  

I have to admit, I've read more this past week than I have over the last few months; these services just make it so easy, and there's no guilt over spending a bunch of money on books I may or may not like.  Plus, I'm really not the re-reader I used to be--or maybe I just don't find a lot of books I'd WANT to re-read anymore--so not having books I'll never read again cluttering up my shelf or my Kindle Touch is another perk. (And trust me, those Kindle screens can get pretty cluttered when you've got 500 + titles on them--no matter how much you try to organize them into collections.)

But you're not here to hear how a book subscription service is wonderful in general, right?  You want to know the details and the dirt.  Well, let's get informatively filthy. 

App Usability:

I've got several points I want to focus on, so I'm going to use subcategories here.

Organization:

Scribd has the option to organize the books on your list into collections, which you can then view on your profile screen.  While I'd like to be able to view the collections on my home screen, it's better than nothing . . . which is what Oyster currently offers.  

I need organization options; scrolling through my entire list to find one specific book is not ideal.  I mentioned before that Scribd has a pretty sweet little collection of writing books, and now my profile has a collection title "Writing Books."  It's nice to know that if I'm in a "maybe I should actually learn something about writing before doing too much more of it" mood, I can choose to see only my writing books and not have to be tempted by sassy little fiction titles or lurid true crime covers.

FAQs:

I'm the weirdo who likes to read the FAQs before I have any questions; it makes me feel more prepared.  If I hadn't read the Oyster FAQ, I would have been very surprised when one of my books suddenly manifested a red "Expiring" label on the bottom of it (more on this below).  Fortunately, the Oyster FAQ was easy to get to from within the app and pretty extensive.  

Scribd's FAQ could use a bit of work.  First of all, you can't get to it from the app (or at least I couldn't).  There is the option to e-mail a question but a) I hate doing that when I know my question is pretty standard and b) on my iPad air the e-mail screen would pop up and then immediately disappear.  At first I thought maybe it was my settings, but I've sent e-mails from other apps before, so I don't know . . . .  

The Scribd site does have an FAQ and Guides screen, but it covers ALL of Scribd.  (Scribd started as a document-sharing site first and is just now dipping its toe into the book subscription pool; it's a currently shallow pool, but I wouldn't be surprised if sometime soon Amazon popped up with a similar service--and no, the Prime lending library is NOT a similar service; it doesn't even compare at the moment.)  So Scribd's FAQs cover a lot more ground than just the service I use, which is fine, but I do wish there were a specific  FAQ just for the book part.  Right now, your best chance of accessing a chunk of questions about the book service is to sort the items on the FAQs and Guides page by Recent (as opposed to General).  Since it's their newest service, most of the recent questions concern the whole book subscription thingy.  

Book Expiration:

As far as I can tell, Scribd makes no mention of books disappearing from their collections; they do have items that are previews ONLY, but they are clearly marked as such.  If I find out something different in the future, I'll amend this post.  Now, on to Oyster and the book expiration experience.

First, let me paste a pertinent section from their FAQ:

I saw a title I was interested in—now it’s gone. Why?
A title may be removed from Oyster for several reasons relating to the rights of the book. If a title is removed, where possible we always provide notice to users in advance. In most cases, readers who have an expiring title in their library will be given ample notice and time to complete the book, if they choose.

When I read this, I thought it was more of a "we're just covering our asses in case this ever happens" sort of thing, or that maybe this was something they had to deal with when they first came out, but now they had it under control.  WRONG.  (Yes, yes, assumption, ass, you, me; I know the adage.)  

The very first book I chose to read--a book that was apparently one of the most popular ones on the service--started sporting an "Expiring" label about three days after I began reading it. (It was The Hangman's Daughter if you're wondering.)  Here's the thing: if I hadn't happened to browse through my list and see the cover, I would have had no idea.  I didn't get an e-mail or an in-app notification or anything.  I also didn't have any information as to WHEN the book would expire.  Did I have a day?  A week?  An hour? WHO KNOWS?  I have no desire to play reading-time roulette.

Something else I found very interesting:  the sequel to the book (or at least the second in the series), which was also on my list and marked as "Expiring," gave me a "no longer available" message when I attempted to read it.  I was able to finish the first book, i.e. the one I had already started, but I couldn't even open the second one.  Why label it "expiring" if I can't read it?  Why not just remove it from my list?  To me, "expiring" means that is has not yet expired; apparently Oyster and I differ on this definition.  

I'm willing to accept that shit happens and expiring books are part of the nature of this business, but if I've got a book on my list that's going to expire, I'd like something more than a cover label--I'd like an actual notification of some sort, complete with an expiration date.  I'd also like Oyster's wording on the topic to be a bit clearer.  Notice how it says they will try to give a reader time to "complete" the book; I'm now taking that to mean exactly what I experienced: you are able to read an expiring book ONLY if you've already started it. I read FAQs so I know what to expect, and since I didn't expect this, the current response is in need of clarification.  

The "Read" List:

Oyster allows you to specifically mark a book as "read."  This was very convenient when, for this blog post, I wanted to look back and see which books I'd finished.  Scribd's "read" list consists of every book you've read any amount of, and since you have to read a book to put it in a collection, there are quite a few in my list that I've seen nothing of except the cover.  I had to search through all the books I'd opened, hunting for full status bars, to find items I'd actually finished.  Also, marking something as "read" just gives you a nice sense of finality (and maybe even accomplishment).  

Reading:

Only one new thing to report here: Scribd does not currently employ a standby mode when you are reading.  In every other app I use (Oyster included), the screen darkens after a period of inactivity and then, after a bit more time, goes black.  If you are reading in Scribd, it never turns off of its own accord.  Not realizing this, I set my iPad down and went outside for about half an hour.  When I returned, my screen was still brightly shining on page whoknowswhat of Wuthering Heights.   Now that I know this, I'm careful to either close the Scribd app or close my iPad cover (it's one of those "smart" covers) when I no longer want to read.  I do think a time out function would be nice (or even a standby option), just in case I ever forget.  Nobody likes a dead battery.

Book Collection:

The Jury is still out on this.  Are either of the collections as big as I'd like them to be?  No.  But when I was a young'un just starting out with my own book collection, mine wasn't as big as I'd like it to be either.  Collections take time and money.  I also haven't devoted a lot of time to comparing the libraries book by book (That would take away from my reading time!).  Some of the disparities I have noticed are just kind of, well, random.  For example, Oyster has a bunch of older Pat Conroy books I've always meant to read but Scribd boasts a lovely catalog of Neil Gaiman titles that make my heart smile.

I decided to look for two books I'd been meaning to read: Plath's The Bell Jar and Eugenides's Middlesex.  I wasn't really expecting either company to have them and I was correct, BUT The Bell Jar is a Harper Collins title--the only big five publisher currently in bed with these companies--so maybe access to that novel is an option.  

I'm contemplating requesting The Bell Jar from both to compare responses, but I seriously doubt what remains in my month long trials would be enough time to realistically expect anything. I may do it anyway, as I'll most likely be sticking with at least one service, and that would improve the odds of me getting to read it.
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That's all for now.  Again, if you have any questions, just ask.

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