Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Book Jobs Not by the Book: Alana Heiss, Partnerships and Content at Oyster

Alana HeissAlana Heiss works on Partnerships & Content at Oyster in New York. After studying literature and philosophy at NYU, she oversaw sales and marketing into Europe for HarperCollins, then moved on to Taschen to manage sales across the east coast of the US. She’s been at Oyster since the app launched in September 2013. 

Editor’s note: This interview was conducted via Derris, the PR company Oyster employs for their public relations.

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What was your first exposure to the book business and what were the most important things you gained from it?
My first foray into the business was selling books at a store in New York during undergrad at NYU. By merchandising new releases each week, curating table displays, and recommending titles to anyone who asked for it (even though I usually said “try Jonathan Franzen or Joan Didion” regardless of what they were actually looking for), I got to be very familiar with different publishers’ catalogs and the kinds of books their imprints publish. In turn, that gave me a good understanding of how publishing companies are structured and how they market titles. That was invaluable for the sales jobs that I later had at companies like HarperCollins and Taschen. And having a good working knowledge of publishers’ catalogs has been very helpful at Oyster, where we’re working with over 1,600 unique publishers.

How do you explain your current job to people?
Currently, I’m working on partnerships and content at Oyster, a New York-based startup and the first company to bring the subscription model to books. Oyster is designed specifically for mobile reading—I love how I can binge read Hemingway on my iPhone during my commute or over a drink at a bar, and enjoy that experience as much as flipping through my hard copy of The Goldfinch at home. The product, editorial, design and engineering teams created the best way to read digitally with our app (can I say “best”? I realize I’m biased here, but it’s true). Where I come in is on the content side, bringing publishers on board and thinking about creative ways to showcase their books in our app—all so we can have the strongest library out there and be the best partner for publishers to work with.

In what ways did your previous jobs or internships prepare you for what you do here?
When I started my first full-time publishing job in international sales at HarperCollins, the book world was undergoing a dramatic change. Digital reading was on the rise, foreign markets were becoming serious consumers of English-language books, and all the big publishing houses were reorganizing and going through the growing pains of an industry-wide transition. So I’ve always been thinking, what’s next for books?  What are readers reading, how are they reading, where are they reading, and why? It’s thinking through these questions and talking to other creative and thoughtful people about them that has really prepared me for the work I do at Oyster.

Also, by sending and receiving hundreds (thousands? probably more?) of work-related emails over the years, I’ve learned that you can make someone your friend for life by adding nonsense like this to professional email threads. That is crucial at Oyster, where we believe that humor and a punchline are sacred things.

What value has this job brought to the way you think about book business as a whole and your own relationship to books?
Working at Oyster has reminded me to always look forward to what’s coming next and make sure I’m thinking about the future in all the work that I’m doing now. The way that my friends and I consume media is all through subscription—movies on Netflix, music on Spotify and now, books on Oyster. That ease and accessibility to quality books, thoughtful curation, and smart, data-driven recommendations is worth much more than the price I pay per month. So I really do think that this move to consuming books digitally via subscription is the future, and it’s my job at Oyster to help bring the industry onboard. As for my personal relationship with books, Oyster has directly caused me to read so much more than I have in the recent past. Gone are the days of playing a dumb iPhone game because I left my copy of Invisible Cities at home. Now, the majority of my reading is on my phone, one of the things that’s always with me.

What advice do you have for those who are looking to get into a publishing start up/wish you had known when getting settled into Oyster?

Don’t be shy about reaching out to people who are already in the startup space for guidance and expertise, and don’t not ask questions because you’re worried that you might sound dumb. Instead of being embarrassed by what you don’t know, begin asking smart questions and educating yourself.

How do you see the relationship between digital and book publishing continuing to grow? 
The book business has to remain innovative in the digital space to thrive. Oyster is the kind of partner that’s uniquely suited to help book publishing prosper in the digital world, and it seems to me like there’s a bright future ahead for books in general. When an app like Oyster can bring hundreds of thousands of books to readers’ hands, it’s that much easier to pick up a great book instead of losing another 20 minutes to Candy Crush. Ease of access means more reading, and more reading is good news for Oyster, book publishers, and the world generally.

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