Google Editions: Divide And Conquer

The e-reading battle is raging hot, and while statistics ostensibly showing an insurgent iPad should be taken with a grain of salt, the volatility of the market is plain to see. The Kindle has made the most of an early lead, and promises to be a highly popular gift item. The Nook Color is receiving encouraging reviews and has just been rooted, rendering it a thrifty choice for tablet shoppers. Color e-ink is on the horizon. It’s a glorious time to be an e-book seller.

So it’s no surprise that Google is jumping into the fray with the long-awaited Google Editions service, set to launch by the end of the year in the U.S. and first quarter of 2011 internationally. But between Kindle, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and independent publishing services like Amazon’s DTP and the unfortunately-named Pubit, is there room for another player? Not that that’s ever stopped anyone from trying — but I think in this case it may be that Google brings something new to the table: decentralization.

Google knows, I am sure, that to compete directly with Kindle-like services would be suicide for Google Editions. Amazon and the others have found success in the creation of a brick-and-mortar simulacrum. You go to the virtual Barnes & Noble the way you’d go to a real Barnes & Noble, you browse the site the way you’d browse the store, you see the book, you look inside the cover, you read a few pages. The success of the virtual store is undeniable, and it will continue to be a success. To try to shoehorn in another one, as Apple is doing with mixed success, is a project Google is just not suited for. Truth be told, they’re terrible at that kind of thing.

But they are good at creating something that people will use without even knowing it, and they’re good at collecting and organizing information. Google Editions isn’t going to be the Kindle Store with a more spartan web aesthetic: it’s going to be a network of individuals, indexed, managed, and regularly milked by Google. While the terms encourage sellers to sell via Google’s existing services (Checkout, direct referrals from search, etc, I would guess), the revenue split is only slightly decreased for resellers. The meaning is clear: Google wants to create an army of booksellers making direct sales to users visiting their site, blog, or what have you.

The advantages of not having to go through, for instance, Amazon, when selling your book, are hard to quantify. But the notion that an author will be able to place a widget on their own page, and have the book-buying transaction be self-contained rather than being transferred to Amazon, is significant. The attraction of being an independent node will be an attractive one for many to whom other e-book stores’ terms may not be permissive or customizable enough. As Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks Inc., an Illinois publisher, puts it, “Google is going to turn every Internet space that talks about a book into a place where you can buy that book.”

As there has been a significant shift towards self-publishing, and an understandable drive for the monetization thereof, Google Editions might be getting in at the beginning of an expanding market. Centralized stores will of course remain popular, but the web is becoming quite the discovery engine, partially because of Google itself, which puts them in an undeniably advantageous starting position for this kind of thing. They don’t intend to take Amazon down, but they plan to be there if the virtual bookstore model takes itself down.

The actual e-reading platform Google describes is less well-formed. Amazon has, as noted above, a huge advantage in being the market leader in e-book devices as well as sales, and hasn’t even (as Apple might have done) used that position to strong-arm consumers into buying their hardware. As commenters pointed out yesterday on the iPad/Kindle story, it is possible and even likely that many of the iPads identified as e-readers in that survey were running Kindle software. Amazon knows that either service would survive on its own, as the Kindle is probably the best e-reader device on the market, and the Kindle store is the most familiar and well-integrated e-book marketplace. They want people to buy iPads! The more people reading e-books, the more people buying e-books, and Amazon is surely hard at work getting exclusive content and sweetheart deals with publishers.

The upward march of Android version numbers and the release of Chrome OS devices may give us some insight to the reading platform over time, but for the moment, it appears to be a web-bound service, perhaps best explained to wary consumers as a Gmail for your e-books. I can’t say I’m particularly attracted to such a thing, though it’s too early to trouble ourselves much about it, since not only is it unlaunched, but will likely still be raw when it goes live. We’ll assess it separately once a product is actually available. And if you’re wondering whether this affects which e-reader you should get the spouse, the answer is no, not really. No need to find a replacement gift.

There is also the question of cross-compatibility with other services. You may as well ask about the availability of personal unicorns for your cloud chariot. These services are fighting tooth and nail to keep books within their ecosystems, and it’ll be a while before official drag-and-drop support between the majors will be permitted. Technical issues also abound: while I read Google Books PDFs on my iPad all the time, the images are encoded with JPEG 2000, which isn’t supported by iOS, and so huge portions of my collection of The Gentleman’s Magazine turn up blank (pro tip: resaving the PDF in Preview fixes this). Shame on Apple for not supporting this image format — but I digress. The point is that technical standards will need to be addressed as well as digital rights and such.

The Google Editions news comes on the heels of a major announcement by Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers, to the effect that they’ve worked out their long-running issues and will be cooperating on the service. The details of the announcement can be found here and here; the gist seems to be that the key players have agreed to whatever revenue sharing, donations, legal rights, and so on were desirable in exchange for Google access to their content. Now that the hurly-burly is done, Google can launch with confidence.

It’s too late for Google to take advantage of the holidays, I’m afraid, though we can probably expect a soft launch later this month. Indeed, it would be fair to say it has already launched, since many of the terms, details, and policies have already been published. We’ll certainly be hearing more over the next few months, though, as Google makes its device and platform strategies more clear.