It seems almost too good to be true. Earlier today I found out about Google’s new ebook service, Google eBooks, which will apparently be available in the US by the end of 2010 and to international markets within a few months of the beginning of 2011. Google once again is poised to change the way that a major industry operates. First they did it with searching the internet, then with email. Now only time will tell if this is going to be the new Google Docs or the new Wave.
On the surface, it seems that almost every one of the issues that small retailers have with ebooks have been answered in one fell swoop, namely, how can independent booksellers compete in the ebook market. Google has provided an answer in a two-fold manner: the first is the creation of a now-standard affiliate program. A website links to a Google ebook, and if a reader buys the book by clicking through the link on the website, the website owner gets a cut of the profit from the sale of that book. The other manner is that it seems that independent e-retailers can host the Google books on their webspace. In exchange for bandwidth and server space (both of which are cheap these days), the website owner and bookseller is able to keep a larger portion of the profit from the sales of the ebook. Google still gets its cut, but this gives the independent web-based bookseller some recourse against Amazon and the other monolithic booksellers.
Google eBooks is going to be cloud based, same as all of Google’s other ventures. Any ebooks that are bought are stored on Google’s servers for access from any internet accessible machine, and ideally, will be able to be downloaded for offline reading. What good is an ebook I’ve bought if I can’t access it when I’m camping or on the beach and have no wifi or 3g connectivity? One big bonus I can see to this cloud-based system, though, is that it could, theoretically, deal with another of my stated worries about the ebook industry: format changes. If the files are cloud based hopefully Google would have some method in place to update file formats as time goes on. This could allow ongoing access to your files as time passes. (barring something like Google going out of business and the servers being shut down, of course.)
Google’s new venture also seems that it will take the ebook off of the ereader, where it has so recently found a home, and make it device agnostic. Up until now if you wanted to buy Amazon ebooks, you were stuck using the kindle. Each of these devices had their own pros and cons. With the Google ebooks, since they won’t be marketing an accompanying ereader, the consumer is going to be free to use the purchased file on whatever device they like…assuming it is compatible with Google’s chosen file format.
There are many questions that still need to be answered in regards to the specifics of Google’s new ebook scheme. Exactly how much of the selling price of the book would a bookseller be able to keep? What percentage would click-through affiliates get? What DRM is there going to be on the files, if any? Will the ebooks be in the popular epub format, allowing a large number of the extant ebook readers and ebook software to access the files? Based on the fact that the ebooks that Google currently offers are in a variety of formats, including epub and pdf, it seems likely that they will continue to use an open standard file format. If they do go the other way and create a new file format, or a new container for an existing format, it will raise problems. I love my ipad and the ibook app, but will I be forced to abandon them if I want to access Google ebooks? Maybe I can sell these Google Editions(TM) ebooks on my website (still to come…) but will I be able to read them without getting new software and hardware?
One more major question that is of personal interest to me, being a librarian by training, is how this new Google ebook system will interact with libraries. Google has major clout with publishers; will it use it to promote literacy in the public sector as well as in the private sector? Will they use their pull to persuade publishers to allow for more lenient rules regarding library sharing of ebooks?
Google seems to be intent on pulling an apple “This Changes Everything” campaign. I hope that they realize what they are capable of doing. If this goes well, they could change the ebook market while it is still in its infancy. If they drop the ball, we will be right where we were, with proprietary devices and proprietary stores to match them.