Google eBooks: Is That All There Is?

Two weeks ago the Google eBookstore finally launched, and the world was briefly amazed. Google Editions, as it was known until launch, was the book world’s Duke Nukem Forever: vaporware for seven years, depending on how you count. Its actual emergence was like the birth of a unicorn. A mewling, misshapen, half-baked unicorn.

Some background: “In 2004 Google digitized the entire contents of several major US libraries, and made a lot of material available on-line, mostly in snippet form as part of its Google Book Search program. It did this without the consent of rightsholders,” to quote an April 2009 email from my agents. (I’m the author of half-a-dozen books, mostly technothrillers.) The resulting legal jihad remains unresolved, and Google’s dream of scanning, indexing, linking, and selling the contents of every library in the world has fragmented into a hodgepodge that includes their Book Search, Library Project, Books Partner Program, and now eBookstore, all of them semi-intermingled. Confused yet?

Many hopes and dreams were projected onto Google Editions’ vaporware. It would index every published word since the dawn of humanity, and make it possible to search your personal library, and deep-link to individual chapters, sections, and paragraphs. It would somehow singlehandedly resurrect the dying bookstore trade. Instead, when the fog finally cleared, all we got was Kindle Lite.

Oh, it does what it does well enough. You can buy books from Google and read them on your Android, iWhatever, e-reader, or the Web; authors and publishers can upload their own books, with or without DRM; and it’s all been expertly implemented. But now that you can read Kindle books on the Web, Google’s new eBookstore is little more than a carbon copy of Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem — except that you can’t (yet) read DRMed Google ebooks on a Kindle (which remains, I note, the world’s most popular e-reader) or email them as gifts.

There are some good features. The best is that you get public-domain books for free, though they seem to have missed the Creative Commons train: neither of the books I’ve released for free appears in their catalog. You can link to a specific edition of a book. Authors and publishers without PDFs can send physical books in to be scanned. Publishers get some of the ad revenue from their books’ web pages. And it has the world’s greatest error page. Nice little touches, but mostly inconsequential.

A ridiculous amount of ado has been made about the eBookstore’s one innovative feature: they’re allowing independent bookstores to sell Google eBooks through their own web sites. I don’t know what it is about indie bookstores that makes otherwise hard-headed analysts go all misty-eyed and misty-minded, but anyone who thinks this is a game-changer is on crack. “A middleman’s business is to make himself a necessary evil,” quoth William Gibson, and love ’em or hate ’em, bookstores are to ebooks what travel agents are to online travel; unnecessary and irrelevant. Leaving that distraction aside, when you compare Amazon’s ebook ecosystem to Google’s, the latter finds itself in the unfamiliar position of inferior copycat.

That isn’t entirely their fault. Most publishing companies are terrified dinosaurs, and book rights are a legal morass in which the dream of Google Books will languish for some time yet, alas. (Their recently released—and completely awesome—Ngram corpus search offers some idea of the possibilities.) If only Google had decided six years ago to ask for permission instead of forgiveness. Now their much-vaunted eBookstore launch is a tepid anticlimax, and they have mostly themselves to blame.