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Google Enters the Ebook Market


The idea of ownership of ebooks is quite ephemeral. There is no resale. No return. No sharing. Essentially a reader’s right of first sale is totally obliterated by a digital book. I joked with someone the other day that you really only have a leasehold interest in the digital book for your life or the life of your digital copy. Depending on DRM issues, the life of your copy could be short indeed (in my case, before I took to stripping the DRM away, the shelf life of my digital library was about 2-3 years or the life of the computer I used to authenticate the ebook reading software). Google stretches the concept of ownership of ebooks even thinner with its upcoming Google Editions.

What is available in the Google Partner Program will be available for Google Edition users. The books that have been scanned in and are part of the Google Book Settlement are a different set. The Google Partner program is something that requires publisher or author consent. (As an aside, Google Partners had a territorial rights list for publishing here).

What does this ultimately mean for readers and authors? Read on.

For Readers

Google’s ebook program will host all of the books in “the cloud”. I explained cloud computing here. Essentially, Google is offering you access but not ownership. There’s drawbacks and advantages to the concept of streaming and cloud computing but the greatest danger for readers is the total loss of ownership that Google’s program represents.

The advantages are obvious. With a cellular signal or a wifi connection, you can access any book scanned by Google for a price. Cloud computing devices do not need as much internal hardware, driving down price of the device and increasing its slick look. Take a look at the Crunchpad, a tablet for web enabled activity. Smartphones also are perfect devices to take advantage of the cloud computing and there are millions more smartphone users just in the US alone than there are dedicated reader purchasers.

Further, Google’s program promises to be device agnostic with the idea that any device out there, regardless of platform (MAC, Windows, Linux, iPhone, Android, etc) will be able to access the cloud of books. The problem is that in order for there to be any kind of DRM, there will need to be some kind of software wrapper that will need to be installed on the hardware device, whether it be a browser plugin or some stand alone application.

It is said that Google intends to use HTML 5 for Google Editions. HTML 5 is not entirely supported by existing browsers (somewhat abrogating that device agnostic concept) but is intended to deliver feature rich content such as video, inline graphics, and more control over formatted look of web content. However, web based content for long form fiction can be well designed and easy to use. Take a look at Liza Daly’s epub Zen Garden.

For readers, the benefit is that we will have access to nearly all books, all of the time. The drawback is that you would never truly own these books. Several questions occur to me. Will Readers be willing to pay as much for a book they never truly own? Will publishers have to dramatically decrease price of a Google Edition? Will piracy increase in order to readers to access digital editions & own a copy of a book they’ve purchased? Will Google Editions redefine the concept of ownership for readers or will readers force Google Editions to change? I’m not certain who I place my money on at this point but I’m leaning toward Google.

For Authors

For authors, there are some decided advantages. First, publishers get to set the price instead of the retailer like Amazon. Of course, consumers are price conscious folks and if they can buy an Amazon book for $9.99 and the publisher has it priced at $25.99 at Google, who is winning that battle? According to the NYTimes,

Mr. Turvey said that Google would probably allow publishers to charge consumers the same price for digital editions as they do for new hardcover versions. He said Google would reserve the right to adjust prices that it deemed "exorbitant."

It is unknown what Google thinks is exorbitant, but I know that readers will refuse to pay greater than $9.99 for a digital copy of a hardcover and that they’ll refuse to pay hardcover prices for a digital copy of a paperback release.

Another advantage is that the author can sell the digital edition straight from their own “bookstore”. As reported first by Cader’s Publishers’ Marketplace (paid link but if you are an author and you don’t subscribe to this you are really missing out), the Partner Program allows for this:

Links to bookstores and online retailers make it easy for users to go from browsing to buying. If you sell your books directly from your own website, your site receives "top billing," appearing first in the list of “Buy this book” links.

Further, contextual ads on the search site next to your book can lead to other income than a royalty. Even better, you can get real time access to how your book is selling. You don’t have to wait for your publishing house to come back to you with a royalty statement every quarter or biannually.

The some questions that arise for authors includes:

  • what to price their book at (and yes, I know, many of you have no say in this but even if you have no say now, don’t you think it’s something to ponder?);
  • how to maximize the search engine results for one’s books (some publishers in the non fiction arena are retooling their titles to be more SEO friendly);
  • whether selling one’s books through their own site makes sense (heck, maybe I should set up a Google Editions store at Dear Author);
  • whether you should sign up for Google Partners in the first place (or find out if your publisher is partnering with Google);
  • whether you should be buying contextual ad space (I would buy the words “nora roberts” so my titles came up anytime someone searched for Nora’s books).

I’m uncertain how this will all play out but it’s coming to a HTML 5 enabled device by the end of 2009. Personally? I’m not likely to be enticed by Google Editions unless a) the price is so low that having a copy of my own is unnecessary or b) I get a copy of my own and price is comparative. Given that we are midway through 2009, it’s time to start thinking about these issues.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Azure
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 06:55:15

    To me, it’s going to depend on what’s available. Is Google going to have books I can find at Fictionwise, a site where I can get discounts and strip the DRM from the book so I’m not chained to one device or computer? Or is Google going to have material that I can’t get anywhere else–books that have been out of print for a long time and cost a bundle to purchase on eBay, for example? If it’s the former, then I’ll give Google books a pass. But I would seriously consider buying from Google if it’s the latter.

  2. Jane A
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 07:33:13

    I simply can’t understand why consumers would support this, though I’m one who is baffled by people who buy books with DRM and then risk losing them when technology changes. Perhaps if I weren’t a re-reader and a member of PBS it wouldn’t make so much of a difference.

    Google’s setup sounds like a library. Would people be willing to spend 9.99 at the library each time they checked out a book? OTOH, if we could buy a reasonably priced subscription to Google, that would be a different matter. Meanwhile, I won’t buy an ebook I can’t strip the DRM from.

  3. Keishon
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 08:29:40

    Jane A said what I was thinking too – will this be an expensive library because if that is the case, it’s a pass. The price would have to be dirt cheap for me to purchase an ebook that I don’t own. But we don’t know this yet. Also, if Google will make HTF and OOP books more accessible, I’m all for it. I wouldn’t be spending my money on books that are available right now. I would only use Google Editions for the truly difficult and hard to find books that I would really, really want to read and I wouldn’t mind paying for those especially if it is significantly cheaper than the market price to own it.

  4. XandraG
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 09:39:58

    Real question – are books disposable information?

    Newspapers operate on a similar kind of idea–pay a nominal fee, get the news delivered, and very few people keep the paper beyond any length of time. Yes, it’s archived, but not by the general reader or user. So the real question becomes, how many people and under what circumstances would readers consider books disposable information. The answer isn’t going to be one-size, or the same for everybody, but it may surprise you. How many Harlequin series find their way to UBS’s before they’re even officially released, and how many readers now “read, then release” the bulk of the books they purchase?

    I’m starting to advocate for a tiered system – make ebooks accessible by selling them cheap for “disposable” files, then offer the purchaser an inexpensive “upgrade” option for a keep-able file.

  5. DS
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 11:46:52

    Orphaned books? Sigh, it doesn’t sound like it. Someone should create a site where frustrated readers could vote for their favorite oop and htf books. That would give the rights holder some idea that there is a demand for these books.

  6. readerdiane
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 13:01:43

    On the other hand does this mean that authors will be able to publish their books without publishers? Will publishers be cut out altogether?

    I think that is where we are going. People can publish their blogs and first chapters, what is the next step? Kind of like E-Bay for books….

  7. Mike Briggs
    Jun 07, 2009 @ 23:27:03

    On the other hand does this mean that authors will be able to publish their books without publishers? Will publishers be cut out altogether?

    I’ve heard a lot of talk lately about technology making it possible for authors to “break free” from the nasty publishers and offer their products directly to the readers, presumably for a tiny fraction of the current cost. Most of these comments come from file-sharing supporters who rationalize copyright infringement by casting the publisher as a bad guy abusing the poor artist. Seen in that light, destroying the business model (and the livlihood) of the publisher is an altruistic act . . . but I digress.

    Sure, with current technology, an author can publish a digital edition of their work with ease. The publisher is slow, finicky and takes a big bite out of the eventual profits. Besides, writing is just connection between author and reader, so who needs a stupid publisher?

    As someone who depends on writing for a living, let me be be the first to say, “Never underestimate the publisher’s contribution.” The publisher really provides two services: First, they read through LOTS of manuscripts to pick the few that have potential. This is a thankless and time-consuming task. There are a lot of bad manuscripts out there, and the publisher does a lot of filtering for the reader. Second, there’s a world of difference between a first draft and a finished novel. The publisher hires several tiers of editors to take the best manuscripts they can find and make them better, often MUCH better, before publication.

    Historically, they’ve also supplied (the less charitable would say controlled) the distribution system. With ebooks and the internet that function is admittedly becoming less important than it once was. However, I just cringe when I hear people clamoring for the demise of publishers. Trust me, they do far more than just sit around writing rejection notices and counting piles of money.

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  9. cursingmama
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 11:05:02

    I’m starting to feel like a broken record – but when I buy something like a book – I want to be able to have it in my possession in some form. I’m not thrilled with the idea of not having and holding something that proves I own it – I LOVE books on my bookshelf – and I think that is where the digital book is lacking.

    With all the issues surrounding DRM and format I would really like to see the digital book format evolve into something more like a personal gaming device – with cartridges – for those of us who aren’t too keen on using a wireless connection (if I can find a stable one) and trusting a big company not to screw up our digital bookshelf.

  10. Zoe Winters
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 17:25:35

    Eeek, I don’t like the Google ebooks idea, I may not even sell through them. I don’t know. It’s going to take me a little time to wrap my head around this concept. I wouldn’t ever just want to pay for “access” to a book. I can get “access” to a book by borrowing it for free from the library. If I pay money I want to freaking own it.

    And here is what I don’t get about the Amazon Kindle. This is the second time I’ve heard that amazon sets the price of $9.99 for Kindle books. But smaller pubs and self publishers who choose to publish on the Kindle are allowed to set their own price. So why do the larger publishers get a crappier deal? Why can’t they just set their own price like I can? That’s just bizarre to me.

    ETA: and reading the comments I can see the library concept is an idea others had too immediately upon reading this. Google is insane. WTF?

    And Mike, most of us who advocate self publishing as an option don’t think publishers are “mean and nasty” they just have different goals from some of us. It doesn’t make them evil. It really doesn’t have to be us vs. them.

  11. Kerry Allen
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 08:32:01

    I went through the application process to get to the Terms and Conditions, read the FAQs, and viewed a slide show, and I don’t see anywhere it says that Google will be selling books.

    Straight from Google’s pitch:

    “Google Book Search helps you sell more books by helping our global search audience find them. But you'll also gain a new revenue stream-‘contextual ads on content pages… And when people click on these ads, Google pays you.”

    “Online reports let you manage your account information, see click rates on ‘Buy this book’ links, track your earnings from contextual ads, and review other stats related to the Google Book Search program.”

    I see Google scanning your book or uploading your PDF, making the content searchable on the web, linking to other sellers (author getting top billing in the seller column if selling on their own site), and sharing a cut of generated ad revenue (provided any is generated).

    If I’m missing the “purchase ebooks directly from Google” angle, could someone please point me in that direction to clarify?

  12. Jane
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 08:33:38

    @Kerry Allen: It’s going live this fall according to Google’s announcement at BEA.

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