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.
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, 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.