This morning, at the Frankfurt Book Fair—an industry event populated with digital rights handlers from the traditional publishing world—Google formalized its plans to launch an online store to deliver e-books to any kind of gadget that has a browser. After being in the works for several years, Google Editions, as it's called, will open for business in the first quarter of 2010.
It's a provocation to Amazon, whose Kindle e-reader dominates the market. "We're not focused on a dedicated e-reader or device of any kind," said Tom Turvey, head of Google Book Search's publisher partnership program. The store will initially offer about a half-million books. Google spokesperson Jennie Johnson says their target audience is Google users, and their goal is to make information in books integrated in your search results: "You shouldn't have to know the answer you're looking for is in a book," she explains, adding, "We're open to working with anyone, including Amazon—if they're interested—and this is really about building a platform so others can access the books we scanned."
That leaves the field open for competing e-reader devices like Sony's—but also brings up the larger issue of whether a fractured market is a good one. "There's this notion that once you have open source there's much more opportunities for developers, and more competition and innovation," says Martin Olausson, director of digital media strategies at Strategy Analytics. "But when you look at leading solutions they tend to be proprietary because of the level of quality control when it comes to developing the software side of things."
While Google may make in-roads into the fast-growing e-book market, Amazon probably won't suffer much in market share, according to Sarah Rotman Epps, media analyst at Forrester Research. Still, it's a coup for Google, which is taking its first step to aggressively monetize one of its book projects. "There are very few things Google sells besides advertising," notes Epps. "So for them to say we're going to sell this product directly to consumers is a strong indication that they want the upside of the book digitization phenomenon."
For publishers, it's not a bad development. "This is not an unfriendly move from Google," argues Epps. "They're giving publishers more control over their pricing than Amazon does," she says, referring to the fact that while publishers prefer that Amazon charge more for their books, the company tends to list, say, The New York Times bestsellers at $9.99, cannibalizing publishers' margins for print books.
Publishers fear getting stuck in the mud for not cooperating. Most are already walking on eggshells because Amazon controls the e-book market. And most are already worried about pissing off Google—they're still stinging from the (yet unsettled) Google Books controversy, over disputed rights after Google scanned millions of books.
And they're in a tight spot. "They're getting desperate and rightly so," says Olausson. "They're in a similar situation to the music industry when they first did a deal with Apple and iTunes in 2003—and it's better to do something than nothing. This might not be right thing to do, but one deal is better than no deal at this point."
This is a lot of hoopla over the ebook market in a country where, says Engadget, "nobody reads anything anymore." According to Epps, "Engadget's not entirely wrong but our survey shows that 70% of U.S. consumers still read at least some print books.