If you stroll on over to your corner bookstore this week and ask the person behind the counter about Google's new ebookstore, which launches today, you probably won’t be greeted with the kind of teeth-gnashing that has accompanied other digital developments, like Amazon's online bookstore or the advent of proprietary e-readers. Instead, you might actually be greeted with some excitement and delight. That’s because Google is taking a different approach to selling e-books than Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Rather than create a closed system that leaves others out in the cold, Google is actually partnering with independent bookstores to sell its wares—and share the profits.
Google's e-books program will act as much as a distribution system as a retail outlet. You can buy Google’s e-books directly from the company’s ebookstore, if you like. But if you’d rather support your local bookstore, you can buy the exact same books on their site. Rather than holding on to every part of the chain, the way Amazon’s Kindle program does, “we’re building an ecosystem,” Google Books director of product management Scott Dougall tells Fast Company.
There are a few reasons Google is going a different way. The ebookstore emerged from the Google Books program, which didn’t start out as a potential revenue stream. Instead, the company’s book-scanning project was simply a program to help the company fulfill its mission to make all of the world’s information accessible. Since so much information is contained in books, the company wanted to make sure that if you were using Google Search to look for a particular topic, it would be able to point you to books containing information about that topic, in addition to relevant web pages. Then, as Google Books began partnering with publishers and contemplating a program to sell books in addition to just making them searchable, it made a philosophical decision that brick-and-mortar bookstores are critical to the literary ecosystem. “A huge amount of books are bought because people go into a physical bookstore and say, 'Hey, I want this, I want that,'” Google Books engineering director Dan Clancy told an audience at the Computer History Museum last year.
Michael Tucker, president of the American Booksellers Association, which negotiated the deal to distribute Google's e-books through independent bookstores, points to another reason Google is dealing the booksellers in: Google is fundamentally a technology company, not a retail enterprise. And it’s certainly not an expert in the book business. “They recognized that they are not a bookstore,” Tucker tells Fast Company. “They wanted to be able to access [the skills of booksellers].”
Google says it has deals to sell books from almost 4,000 publishers, including all the major houses, and that "hundreds of thousands" of books will be available for purchase. Google has arranged to get 30% of every book sale, with publishers retaining the remaining 70%. In its deal with the ABA, bookstores that sell Google e-books will get a portion of that 30 percent. Neither Google nor Tucker would divulge the terms of the deal, but Tucker said it was “more generous” than the deal booksellers currently get from Ingram Digital, the other major supplier of e-books to independent bookstores.
Bookstores seem to be cautiously optimistic about the Google program. A person who answered the phone at St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York said, “We’re looking forward to it,” before referring Fast Company to the ABA. “We’re really pleased,” said Mark LaFramboise, a buyer at Washington D.C.’s Politics and Prose. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
Darin Sennett, director of strategic partnerships at the famous Powell’s book shop in Portland, Oregon, is particularly excited about Google’s technological model. The Kindle, the Nook, and the Sony eReader all use the traditional approach to e-books: They sell DRM-protected files that customers download to devices and which must be read with specific e-reading software. Google, however, is using the cloud. Its e-books will be stored on Google servers, and readers who’ve purchased them will access their books via a browser. Unlike in the Kindle system, where Kindle e-books can only be read on Kindle devices, Google e-books will be able to be read on any device that has a browser. Until now, independent bookstores have been effectively shut out of devices like the iPad and smartphones (which are emerging as many customers’ reading platforms of choice) because the e-books available from other distributors were either not compatible with those devices or the formatting was so clunky as to make them effectively unreadable.
“Kindle and Nook are formidable technologies, but they’re islands,” Sennett tells Fast Company. “There are so many [devices and readers] outside those islands. What Google does is fill the oceans between them.”
Readers who prefer to own their own copies of Google e-books will be able to download them, in either PDF or ePub format. But Google anticipates that most customers use the cloud because of its convenience: They’ll always have access to their books, no matter what device they have with them at any particular time. (On the down side, however, using the cloud requires having an active Internet connection.)
Politics and Prose’s LaFramboise says Google's program gives independent bookstores an effective avenue for staying in the bookselling game as some readers’ preferences shift to digital formats. “When people come to us and say ‘We really love independent bookstores and we want to buy our e-books from you,” now we can say, ‘You can.’”