Finally, after announcing its intent over a year ago, Google arrived on the e-book scene today with Google E-Books (formerly “Google Editions,” formerly the “Google Partner Program”). Before today, Google’s book service (“Google Books”) existed as a place to locate books and search the text therein, where Google would merely provide links to other retailers that sold the books you found, but now Google is selling e-books itself. So, how does Google compare with the existing e-book retailers (Amazon, B&N, Sony, Kobo, Apple, etc.)?
Google E-Books probably fields the world’s largest single e-book library, of 3 million titles or so. Perhaps you’ve heard about the ongoing Google Books class-action lawsuit and settlement? Essentially, Google grabbed up a bunch of library books and scanned them into its archives, where users could find them using Google’s search engine tools (search results could find not only book titles and author names and other metadata, but could actually find passages from within books). In collecting books for its archives, Google essentially grabbed every book it could find unless the rights-holder (the publisher or author) learned about it and complained to opt out. So, Google captured large numbers of out-of-copyright public domain books, in-copyright books where publishers explicitly gave permission, and a whole gray area of books of indeterminate copyright status. This enabled Google to scan and have access to about 3 million texts, more than any other platform; however, over 2.5 million of those titles are public domain, leaving only a few hundred thousand modern, in-copyright titles (for comparison, Amazon has over 750,000 mostly in-copyright titles available in the Kindle Store, and Apple has only 30,000 in the Apple iBooks Store).
Another interesting feature of Google E-Books is that it is device-independent: Google doesn’t make an e-reader (like a Kindle or Nook), but allows you to read e-books purchased from Google in multiple ways. First, you can read e-books online, through a web browser (accessed through your computer or smartphone). Second, you can download PDFs to read on your computer or tablet computer. Third, you can use the Google for Android or Google for iOS (iPhone, iPod, iPad) apps to read from your smartphone or tablet. Finally, you can use Adobe Digital Editions to read e-books in DRM-protected ePub format on compatible e-readers, including the Nook and Nook Color, Sony E-Readers, and Kobo E-Readers — but notably not the Kindle (which uses the MOBI file format and does not support Adobe DRM). Google E-Books has a “buy once, read anywhere” focus, and touts how you can read e-books purchased from Google without downloading anything — just start reading right in your browser. Personally, I prefer to download and own the e-book files I purchase, but the simplicity may appeal to some people who enjoy reading on LCD computer or smartphone screens.
The ability to download and read purchased Google e-books (some public domain titles remain free) on various e-reader devices is the most interesting feature to me — I have no interest in reading novels off my computer screen (let alone a tiny smartphone screen). But being able to use Google E-Books as a source for content, and reading that content on an e-Ink based e-reader has a certain appeal, especially since you can switch from a Nook to a Sony to a Kobo and keep reading from your same e-book library. Of course, Amazon and all the other e-book retailers already offer apps for various platforms (PCs, Macs, iOS, and Android), allowing you to read your e-books in multiple ways and sync your progress in each of them, but this adds another level of interoperability.
So what does this mean for readers? Well, if you have a compatible e-reader, or feel like reading off a computer screen, you may want to give Google E-Books a try. A quick check showed that most books are similar in price to Amazon and B&N, but a few are slightly more or less expensive. On the plus side, you’d be able to read any e-books you purchase on almost any e-reader you eventually decide to buy (other than a Kindle — although Google says they “are open to” eventually being compatible with Kindles). There haven’t been many details yet, so we’ll have to wait and see how well the e-books are formatted, if they allow returns, or how many new releases show up for sale through Google. (I uploaded my books months ago, and they are now available through Google E-Books at launch.)
Google also eventually plans to allow third parties (other websites, or independent bookstores) to sell Google e-books and keep a cut of the revenue. That might be an interesting twist, and forward-thinking independent bookstores might jump at the opportunity to suddenly have a full-fledged e-book store through their own websites.
As for the balance of power in the e-reading world, it remains to be seen if Google will make crossroads into the market. While the interoperability is impressive, it doesn’t include Amazon, which owns roughly 75% of the market. That cuts both ways, of course — but I think it hurts Google more than Amazon. Amazon doesn’t have much incentive to make it easier for its millions of Kindle users to start buying all their e-books from Google instead of Amazon.
On the one hand, Google is a well-known brand with lots of money and talent, they have a huge library of e-books, and they offer unprecedented interoperability amongst multiple e-book devices (for anyone out there who happens to own a Nook Color, a Kobo, and an old Sony E-Reader, you’re probably off buying e-books from Google already). On the other hand, Google is very late to the e-book game (which started way back in the late 1990s, and really took off in earnest with Sony and Amazon in 2007), and I can’t help but think that a whole lot of avid e-book readers have already started building an e-book library and have allegiance to someone else. Not having a dedicated device may also hurt Google, as it’s definitely easier to shop on Amazon from a Kindle, or on Barnes & Noble from a Nook. Another demerit: while Google search and Maps are pretty user-friendly, every other Google service I’ve used (especially Google AdWords, AdSense, Analytics, and the Partner Program set-up) are incredibly difficult to use and the help documentation is confusing and contradictory — they have a long way to go to match Amazon’s ease of use and customer service.
I also wonder how seriously Google will take the e-book business: they still can’t even seem to figure out their own name (the website will bounce you from Google E-Books to Google Books to the Google Partner Program with a tab for Google Editions), they haven’t yet announced lots of details (like how rights-holders will get paid), and you have to wonder what took them so long and why they don’t have their own e-reader. My advice: keep an eye on them, but I’d take a wait-and-see approach on this one for a while.