Who's afraid of Google's book store?
After many delays Google has finally got into the bookselling business. Its eBooks store is only available in the United States for now, but it is far more ambitious in scope than might have been imagined.
I had thought that the search giant might dip a toe in the water with free titles and some of the out-of-print books it has been scanning under its controversial Google Books programme. In fact, it appears to have a wide selection of current titles at keen prices.
For example, I found Michael Lewis's excellent account of the people who bet on the credit crisis The Big Short for $9.99 - the same price as on Apple's iBooks store but a lot cheaper than the $25.73 charged at Amazon's Kindle store. Then there's Howard Jacobson's Booker-winning The Finkler Question, going for $5.69 on the Google eBooks store, as compared to $6.22 at Amazon. The book isn't available in Apple's store which does seem - from my experience - to have a pretty limited range of titles.
You can read Google's books online, where they are stored in the cloud, or you can download them to read across a number of devices - on a computer, on an Apple iPhone or iPad, on any number of phones or tablet computers running Google's Android operating system. One place you can't read them, of course, is a Kindle.
Once it has assessed early reactions to the store, Google is likely to bring this venture to the UK next spring - so what reaction will it get here? One online magazine which tracks the e-book industry seems surprised by all the fuss, insisting there is nothing new about the service. "[When Google] does arrive it'll still be nothing more than a 'me too' store duplicating services and features which already exist," says Martin Hoscik on the ebookmagazine site.
That ignores the fact that the digital publishing market in the UK is in its infancy, with sales of consumer e-books in 2009 amounting to just £2.1m. We may have plenty of choice already - from, say, the Waterstones site to Kobo Books - but there is a huge market to play for and you can't ignore the effect that the arrival of a giant brand like Google could have, as e-books move from the geeky preserve of early adopters to the mainstream.
Having spoken to booksellers and publishers, I'm hearing plenty of enthusiasm about the Google store. My impression is that both are pretty desperate to see the arrival of a service which could provide real competition for the Kindle store, and prevent Amazon from building a virtual monopoly in the electronic bookselling market here.
The Publishers' Association told me it understands a UK launch is "imminent", and says it will be an exciting offering similar to what's been unveiled in the United States. Publishers on both sides of the Atlantic have had plenty of run-ins with Amazon over pricing, so they are enthusiastic about another route to the electronic market.
The retailers are if anything even more enthusiastic because Google is offering independent booksellers a chance to sell e-books through its new service. "At the moment if you're an independent bookseller, it's very hard to compete with Waterstones or Amazon on e-books," a spokesman at the Booksellers Association told me. "Now they'll be able to reach a global audience through Google."
It is consumer attitudes to this new technology which will now be crucial. Do they see e-books as Google does - virtual products, living in the cloud, and available just about everywhere? Or are they still focussed on hardware, in the form of something like Amazon's Kindle, which has so far proved very successful in marketing the whole idea of e-books?
I've a sneaking suspicion that it is hardware which will matter, but next year we should find out whether Amazon or Google has a better chance of becoming the big beast of the e-books industry.