Google’s efforts at a digital publishing bookstore, teased months ago, are due soon according to the Wall Street Journal. But given Google’s jagged history and Apple and Amazon’s dominance in the field, Google’s got a rocky road ahead.
The WSJ, citing a Google executive, says that Google Editions is due to arrive in the U.S. by the end of the year and will quickly expand across the world in the early part of 2011. Independent booksellers have begun receiving contracts to supply Editions with texts, meaning that its launch really is imminent. The WSJ also notes that Editions “could shake up the way digital books are sold.”
The thing is that Editions was teased months ago, and we’d been expecting its arrival during the summer. The delay was explained by Scott Dougall (the product management director in contact with the WSJ) by noting that the fault lay with “complexity of this project.” It seems the issue was so large that it resulted in the sort of spit-and-polish delays that plague NASA’s rocket launches–Google “didn’t want to come out with something that wasn’t thorough,” according to Dougall.
Editions is indeed something different, even in the nascent e-publishing game. Unlike Amazon’s locked-down and heavily DRM-ed Kindle ecosystem, and Apple’s app-centric iBooks effort, Editions is not counting on specific hardware or apps to deliver its text content to readers. Instead it’ll try to make its books available to pretty much everything with access to a web browser, which opens up the possibility of reading books on your Net-connected TV (despite the questionable benefits of the screen resolution). The strength of the system is Google advertising–Google’s command in the Web ads business, combined with its wide reach across many Net services, and its dominance of search means that if you search for book content online soon you’ll be able to buy it instantly, assuming Google’s sealed a deal with the particular publisher.
But there are numerous issues that could plague Google Editions right from the start. Firstly, Facebook is beginning to command ever-bigger portions of the Web ads business, and this means other digital publishing systems (like Apple’s and Amazon’s) could easily buy the kind of ad-based or search-based “find it, buy it” connectivity that Google may be trying to achieve with Editions. Both of these big rivals have had plenty of time to concrete their positions in the e-books game during the time Editions has been delayed. Amazon’s launched new e-reader hardware, and though its hardware may be quickly losing marketshare to Apple’s iPad (and will lose more when the expected flood of Android tablets hits in 2011) it’s still the leading e-books vendor, since it has apps on the different smartphone platforms as well as its own web-based e-reading system. That’s not to say Apple’s forgotten its iBooks effort, and now that the iPad is rapidly going on sale around the world we can imagine that iBooks will quickly follow–despite its slow start.
Google’s also not got a particularly wonderful business reputation, and it remains to be seen if e-book content owners will embrace (and trust) the monster, rather than going with one of its equally big-name competitors–since it’s a wholly new market. It’s possible Google will quickly earn business from independents or self-publishing authors, trading on its reach alone, but it’s easy to imagine big publishing houses being wary of Google, and choosing to license their content to a more traditional bookstore name like Barnes & Noble, or even hot-ticket Apple. Particularly given Google’s cavalier, and legally dubious, position on its sister Books project, which has riled publishers the world over thanks to allegations of outright theft. The web-delivery model that Google is using may be more open to casual piracy of published content than the protected app system that Apple and Amazon use (whether on smartphones, tablets or e-readers) and that may worry publishers too.
The fact that Google has pushed to tease news on the project again without delivering anything yet suggests that the company is itself concerned.
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