Google Enters Chaotic Digital Book Market

Chances are you may already be a little perplexed by the ebook market. You may not be sure which device to buy or what format is best. Should you get a mono-tasking reader such as Amazon's Kindle or something more versatile such as Apple's iPad? Well, Google may soon make your decision more difficult or-depending on how you look at it-much easier.

On May 4, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google planned to begin selling ebooks in June or July with the introduction of the Google Editions. In a statement to EContent, Google said, "We want to build and support a digital book ecosystem to allow our partner publishers to make their books available for purchase from any web-enabled device-whether it's a PC, a smartphone, a netbook, or a dedicated reading device." Google also said that ebooks could be available through its channels "as early as the middle of the year."

During the ebook forum at the Buying & Selling eContent conference in April, Chris Palma, strategic partner development at Google Books, said that the company was striving for seamless interoperability so you can "start reading a book on an e-reader in bed and finish it on your phone on the way to the office."

Speculation about Google's foray into the ebook market has a long history. In May 2009, The New Yorks Times reported that Google was talking to publishers at the BookExpo in New York about "its intent to introduce a program ... that would enable publishers to sell digital versions of their newest books direct to consumers through Google."

However, in an already crowded and chaotic ebook market, one has to wonder where Google will fit in. "Some consumers will be drawn to Google Editions' relative device-independence. Reader frustration with the nonportability of Apple and Amazon proprietary formats may be more theoretical than real, though," says Steve Sieck, president of SKS Advisors, an information industry strategy consulting firm. There are, of course, already ebook formats that can be read across multiple devices. Most notable is the EPUB format, which can be read by the iPad, Barnes & Noble's nook, the Sony Reader, Lexcycle Stanza, and much more.

Sieck is not sure that Google's device neutrality will be its biggest selling point, however. He says, "The more unqualified support of publishers could ultimately be its biggest advantage, since publishers are understandably not happy about the value of content migrating to hardware devices like the Kindle and iPad and their dedicated channels." Amazon sells Kindle books for $9.99, far less than what a new hardcover sells for in the store and a longtime point of contention between publishers and the online retail giant.

It would seem that Google is aiming for the casual customer who does not necessarily own a dedicated e-reader but occasionally has a need or desire to read an ebook. "To begin with, the market for Google Editions will include all the browser-equipped book buyers who don't yet have a Kindle [or Kindle software on another device] or an iPad. That may exclude many of the most intensive readers, but it certainly leaves a large potential ebook market that is now unserved or underserved," says Sieck.

Google Editions is not the company's first foray into the world of books, though. The company's often controversial book search has been impacting the world of digital books for years. "Obviously, Google has already made a large commitment to bookselling with Google Book Search, regardless of the outcome of the Google Books settlement," says Sieck. "It is natural that they would want to leverage their existing publisher relationships and the large library of out-of-copyright books they already make available through the Sony Reader."

"Don't forget the incentive to weaken competitors, especially as the competition with Apple evolves to include more and more lines of business," Sieck says. After the release of Apple's iPad, pundits speculated that, combined with an iBooks store, it could revolutionize the book industry the way the iPod and iTunes did for music. So it is likely more than coincidental that Google is finally throwing its hat into the ebook ring. Sieck adds, "Google may not have the killer instincts of Microsoft, but they've shown no reluctance to make investments motivated by the removal of opportunities for competitors."

"Clearly, the volume of searches [and potential book-buying discoveries] on Google is vastly greater than even Amazon [or eBay] can claim. But the most potentially revolutionary aspect is the avoidance of proprietary distribution boundaries and a power shift back toward publishers and away from monolithic ecommerce channels,"

Sieck says. "That's definitely to the strategic benefit of content owners. Whether it ultimately also benefits consumers remains to be seen."