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Who's afraid of Google's book store?

Rory Cellan-Jones | 16:10 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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.

An e-book reader

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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Why can't you read them on a kindle? What format are they in? It seems strange not to have the availability of a format that the kindle can use.

    What about other e readers? The devices you mentioned are not really suitable for being used to read books...

  • Comment number 2.

    Kindle can read PDF, etc. Would be very surprised if there was no way to copy one on, especially if it is platform agnostic as Google claim.

    Care to clarify Rory?

  • Comment number 3.

    The Big Short is available for £6.19 as a paperback, and I did not search long so can probably get it cheaper.

    I'll stick with the physical book.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hope they sell to businesses unlike Amazon, who as i recently found out refuse to issue a VAT receipt. I cant claim back a computer programming book i purchased on expensis. Its not legel.

  • Comment number 5.

    Quoting Rory -

    "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."


    If by mainstream you mean those wealthy enough to have e-readers then yes.

    However the mainstream, i.e. the majority of people in the UK, will be sticking with good old fashioned paperbacks for the foreseeable future. So e-books will still be the preserve of the "early adopters".

    The Big Short, is available for £6.34 ($9.99 US at current exchange rates) as a digital version via Google in the US according to your article, but as Kit Green above stated the book can be purchased for less (currently £6.19 on pre-order at Amazon), and you don't have to invest in an expensive e-reader and the price will come down more in time, unlike digital copies whose prices are unlikely to depreciate at all.

    Plus not all books are available for e-readers are they?

    Sorry but the traditional reading formats still have their place and will for a long while to come, despite the efforts of US companies to get us to change our habits to provide them with more income.

  • Comment number 6.

    Oh one more thing I forgot to mention in my post above, a very big reason why e-books will be slow to infiltrate the market - sharing.

    You cannot lend an e-book to your friend in the same way you can a physical copy of a book, paperback or hardback.

    The way I see it the e-book is more of an attempt to stop books being shared to protect and increase revenues than it is of moving reading habits forward.

  • Comment number 7.

    ravenmorpheus2k wrote:
    You cannot lend an e-book to your friend in the same way you can a physical copy of a book, paperback or hardback.

    ---

    While this is true, it's also true that there are other languages out there besides english that have expencive paperback or hardback books. In my country you would be hard pressed to find a book cheaper than 30 EUR. Simply because there is not enough people, the production cost of one book is much higher than if you print millions of them as you can in english language. And for us these kind of e-books will be a blessing.


    Not ot meniton there is no 5-10EUR shipping cost when ordering a foreign e-book.

  • Comment number 8.

    "While this is true, it's also true that there are other languages out there besides english that have expencive paperback or hardback books. In my country you would be hard pressed to find a book cheaper than 30 EUR. Simply because there is not enough people, the production cost of one book is much higher than if you print millions of them as you can in english language. And for us these kind of e-books will be a blessing.


    Not ot meniton there is no 5-10EUR shipping cost when ordering a foreign e-book."


    Yes I am aware there are cost differences between countries, however I was referring to the UK market, not Europe.

    I agree with you when you say there is no shipping cost for an e-book, but why are the costs of e-books higher compared to paperbacks when in essence the overheads are actually lower compared with the overheads of selling traditional reading formats?

  • Comment number 9.

    "I agree with you when you say there is no shipping cost for an e-book, but why are the costs of e-books higher compared to paperbacks when in essence the overheads are actually lower compared with the overheads of selling traditional reading formats?"

    Ebooks are not exempt from VAT and so cost more. Also the cost of printing a book is a tiny proportion of the price of the book so although your not getting a hard copy they are not massivley cheaper to produce.

  • Comment number 10.

    The cost of printing a book might be a tiny proportion of the price, but you still have shops/warehouses to keep them in, staff to pull them off of shelves, pack them, distribute them etc. and all the associated transport costs.

    What do you do with an e-book? - maintain a few forests of servers and upload the files to them. Besides the electric and rent on the premises and the few IT staff which no doubt Google (and other e-book sellers) already employ, I doubt very much that the overheads are anywhere as near as they are for physical booksellers, VAT or not. Why else would internet commerce be taking off? If it cost more to sell the items businesses would not be moving their trade online, that would not make financial sense, even if you think you can recoup the extra costs by way of inflated prices for your products.

  • Comment number 11.

    ravenmorpheus2k

    You are right in that currently e readers are still the preserve of the early adopters, though with the new Kindle being only a little more than £100 it's far from a very expensive outlay. At this price range I think the market will sway closer to the mainstream than you might think.

    Of course it all comes down to cost, and currently a lot of paper books are cheaper than the ebook alternative. This business model just doesn't make sense to get people to pay over the odds twice for a reader and then the books! Though when ebooks drop in price to where they should be, e-readers will suddenly become a much more viable option (especially considering all the free books you can get).

    The real problem with e book pricing comes down to two factors. One is the VAT - this should really be revised but doubt it will happen.

    The other major factor in high e book pricing is that the publishers are keeping the prices high deliberately. If you do a little research you'll find that a while back Amazon was intending to push for lower prices from the publishers so they could sell things as low as they can get away with - this is generally Amazon's strategy with most products. Apple were aware of this at the time and did not want this to happen - typically their strategy is to sell things for as much as they can get away with. So Apple put pressure on the publishers to artificially keep the prices high. As a result we all pay over the odds for ebooks just so the publishers and the Apple book store can easily take home a tidy profit.

    Of course you wont find any discussion of these disgraceful business practises on this blog...can't say a word against Apple!


  • Comment number 12.

    It's not just Apple, it was the publishers who decided that they wanted to be able to set the consumer price for e-Books. Whereas Amazon put up some sort of fight (resulting in the temporary removal of the buy button on MacMillan's books from Amazon) before capitulating, Apple seems to have just accepted the terms.
    So in this instance, it's not the book-sellers who are to blame, but the publishers.

  • Comment number 13.

    I think it's actually a little more complex than that as there are certain agreements in place. Though essentially it's in the arrangement that Apple have with the publishers that other stores are not allowed to charge less than Apple's suggested price. As a result Amazon ended up having to raise prices to Apple's levels.

    Though you're right that the publishers are certainly to blame, it's all very murky and I believe is treading dangerously on price fixing issues -I'm not sure if there's any investigations going on.

    It does make me wonder why we need publishers at all for ebooks...This world needs a lot less greedy middle men, and the internet has the potential to cut out the need for them entirely.

  • Comment number 14.

    I do agree with ravenmorpheus2k (hey you popular:) in that ebooks will not replace hardback. For me books can be an investment. Take for example a first edition of Lawrence of Arabia "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom" fetches thousands in the market and a signed Ian Fleming Thunderball book is also worth thousands and so on. Ebooks just add to pleasure of having a real book

  • Comment number 15.

    I have to say I don't understand how these e-books are taking off - you need a device to read them on and, for my money, no decent one yet exists. I pre-ordered the new Amazon Kindle (am in USA) because I wanted to read out-of-copyright classics for free on it - seemed exciting - and when it arrived in September I was so disappointed that I sent it back after a few days. The "e-paper" in no way deserves to be called paper - despite the hype, it looks computer-y and has quite a bit of glare; it's simply not true that there isn't glare and that it's 'just like paper'. The contrast was poor even though the new Kindle is said to be 50% better than any previous e-paper contrast - the "background" to the text is really quite dim and dark and it just isn't much good. Additionally the device is slow and the interface is terrible; so poorly designed it's like an afterthought, despite Amazon's claims of how brilliantly they've designed it. Finally, it is just way, way too small to read on. The 6 inch screen feels micro, particularly since it's so dark and low-res. The device is total rubbish in my opinion. Paying ten dollars for a digital file to read on this thing is a joke, a cynical ripoff. As for the future, text files have even _less_ "perceived inherent substance/value" than music files - which themselves became acceptable to 'pirate' without paying for because they're just data with no physical existence (and no loss of value to the 'owners' after an individual 'theft' even if they fantastically claim "you would have paid for it if you hadn't actively not paid for it"). So how many people will feel like paying for an e-book once decent reader hardware actually does exist? Downloading a 2 MB text file makes Napster look like rocket science. This e-book industry is going to hobble publishing with more suddenness than MP3 hobbled the music record business, all so a few device manufacturers can sell some ten dollar downloads without any manufacturing costs (given that they aren't actually creating value, just expecting the customer to pay them even though it's only the author and his editor who did anything). And in the process, nobody who just wants to read a real book will have an easy time actually reading conveniently and comfortably ever again, given that young people and students on a budget will gut the economics of the publishing industry exchanging text files. Really most of us will. I'd rather pay money for something of value than steal something worthless, but if the same companies want to charge me ten dollars for nothing instead of twelve dollars for a paperback book I can own, lend, sell, feel, and that actually exists, then yes, I will download the text file without paying when I can read it comfortably, because they will then be charging probably 25 dollars for a paperback with cheaper paper and rubbish printing, so they'll have ruined everything anyway and you may as well give up paying for things if they won't meet you half way by actually creating some value before expecting you to pay them. In conclusion, I'm not looking forward to getting free books.

  • Comment number 16.

    Don't know where you're seeing those prices on Amazon, Rory. they look the same to me.

    With regards to the formatting question - the Kindle device can't read ePub files, which is why the only real place to buy books is Amazon.com.

    Once eBooks go DRM free, like music, it won't be a problem at all.

  • Comment number 17.

    Most of the costs of a book go into it's production. So even with an e-Book, although there might not be any paper/printing costs, there will still be highly-skilled typesetting, layout, design, special fonts, proof-reading, corrections, illustrator or photographer fees/royalties, and other factors, that all have to be paid for.

    In addition, many rights holders to such things as photography will base their fees on distribution levels: so, for example, if a publisher prints 50,000 paperbacks for sale in the UK only, the rights holder will demand a particular fee based on the potential audience. But an e-Book has both an unlimited supply, and a potentially worldwide audience, so the rights holder may charge the publisher considerably more to use the same images in electronic format.

    All of these factors will affect the final price of the book, and is why there is such variation in costs. If a particular retailer wishes to offer a book at a discounted price, that's up to them: it's their own profit margins they are playing with. But don't blame "greedy publishers": it's they who do all the hard work making the book available to you in the first place!

  • Comment number 18.

    @ christophergill

    Thought you made a very interesting post. I particularly liked the comparison to the music industry, and ebooks could quite conceivably go the same way. Record labels were slow to offer digital music because they were quite happy screwing customers for as much as they could get, and even now music is over priced. As a result piracy took hold on a large scale. If the normally 'honest' person wasn't being ripped off then many of them wouldn't have opted to go for the 'theft' option. Currently publishers are screwing customers for ebooks. Whilst there is not currently a big piracy issue for ebooks, there soon will be if they carry on in this manner.

    @ Graphis

    I really think you are over doing the role of the publisher.
    Typesetting, layout, design, special fonts? All basically the same thing, and all are minimal tasks that I'm sure a lot of authors would prefer to do themselves. Proof-reading and corrections - perhaps, but this is not an expensive task.

    Illustrators and photographers do indeed need to be paid for. Though considering that ereaders are currently not good at displaying images, it's not as if we're talking about picture heavy books here. It's really only the front cover - this is hardly going to ramp up prices of ebooks astronomically.

    Quite simply it is the publishers being greedy. Their main role was getting the books set up for printing, distribution and marketing. With the rise of ebooks these roles are significantly less important and they are seeing their business model go down the toilet so are grabbing whatever cash they can.

  • Comment number 19.

    I travel a lot for work and have been using a Sony Touch eBook Reader for just over a year now—it has more than paid for itself because of the convenience of not having to travel with a bag full of books. This includes novels, user guides, software manuals and sales bumf. The only downside is the price of eBooks. Handing over £5-10 (or whatever) for a digital copy must put many potential customers off. (Although for me, this is not a major problem as I like reading classic novels, i.e. out of copyright novels such as those by Conrad, Dickens, and Wells etc. You can easily download these free from a number of sites—www.gutenberg.org being just one.) If I pay for something, I like to feel the goods, but perhaps that is a generation thing. Once the price of eBooks comes down to an acceptable level I think eBooks will really take off. Right now, they are too expensive.

  • Comment number 20.

    There is a nifty little program called Calibre that allows you to convert between the various e-book and document formats. So you can read e-books for the Kindle on a Sony e-reader, or other devices, and e-books intended for the Sony e-reader, or other devices, on a Kindle.

  • Comment number 21.

    I used to be skeptical about eBooks until I got an iPad earlier this year. I bought the first couple as an experiment fully expecting not to like the experience. However I am surprised to find that I now prefer eBooks to paper. I normally have several books on the go at once and it's great to be able to have them all available without the bulk. I also like that I can read them on my phone when I'm at a loose end for a few minutes waiting for something. Now I only buy paper if the eBook isn't available or if I plan to be reading on a beach.

    What matters most to me about these on-line stores is choice. Contrary to Rory's example, I've always found the Kindle store cheaper than iBooks for the titles I wanted to buy and there is much more to choose from. I often find that iBooks doesn't have a title I want.

    The publishers need to do much more to exploit the possibilities of the electronic version. Most of the old titles make no attempt to exploit hyperlinks when the book is crying out for it and there are frequently loads of typos in them. I suppose this will improve with newer publications that are produced for both paper and electronic variants from the start.


  • Comment number 22.

    18. At 1:05pm on 09 Dec 2010, jizzlingtons wrote:

    Typesetting, layout, design, special fonts? All basically the same thing, and all are minimal tasks that I'm sure a lot of authors would prefer to do themselves.
    ----------------------

    The very fact you seem to think these are "minimal tasks" indicates that, in the books you've been reading, the designers and typesetters have done an excellent job: good typography is one of the few skills (some would say arts) that is intended NOT to be noticed, so as to interrupt the 'flow' of reading. You only ever notice bad typography and design when it spoils your enjoyment of the experience, like when you see the wires holding up the spacecraft in badly-made films.

    I've seen far too many works where the author has decided to do it themselves: some nights I still wake up sweating. That's the downside of everyone having access to the same tools: assuming that the skills are automatically installed along with the software, or, perhaps even worse, assuming that the skills consist ONLY of learning how to use the software. I could go out tomorrow and buy a piano: it wouldn't make me a concert pianist.

  • Comment number 23.

    Hopefully they'll do away with the crazy market restrictions. It seems dumb that I can buy the paperback version of a book from AmazonUK but can't buy the electronic version, even when the US version isn't available or even likely to be available here

  • Comment number 24.

    Those who diminish the efforts of their fellow workers in - and who happen to have chosen - publishing, and suggest the cost of publishing is minimal, should think of that argument applied to their own work and industry. Then perhaps the following points might make more sense.

    First, the industry has no spokesperson or single voice. This is for the vey good reason that 'publishing' is more of an umbrella term for a host of activities which use similar tools and retail outlets. The sizes of organisation in the industry vary from the few giants, through the small companies and to the host of individuals whose activities range from the writing, through all the myriad of processes that turn that into the gems people buy.

    Writing a single volume, whether any genre of fiction or the many types of non-fiction, can take years, full time. While some are written much more quickly, the ones that make an impact are rarely among that latter group.

    Encouraging and making possible the genuine contributions to literature, and to culture, needs a good support structure. But even the fairly less obviously important ones need a deal of that same structure to enable writers to live.

    The rest of the publishing industry is very largely that support structure.

    It may seem strange to many who call for cheap and free, but all those people in the support structure need to put food on the table and a roof over their families' heads. It is wonderful for them when they are part of a success that makes that happen. But, to find those, chances have to be taken on many books that fail, and cost the publisher.

    There are a few similarities to the music and visual entertainment industry, but those who think that is parallel to the book industry are missing many real differnces in both the product, the usage and the nature of the demand. These differences are, together, so great as to leave almost the only relevant one as the ability to put them into a digital format.

    'Ebook' is another umbrella term, that hides many fundamental differences, ranging from the new interactive possibilities to the simple text file. Each of these dozen or more has its own challenges and difficulties, and each book poses new problems - whether small or major.

    None of that is helped by the large and growing number of formats, as retailers like Amazon with the Kindle create a DRM structure to limit the marketing advantages of the web.

    Even the attempt to create a basic common format in ePub has caused only more problems as publishers try to squeeze their disparate quarts into this pint pot. And ePub cannot even be read by all devices, each of which works best with its own proprietary format.

    I could go on and answer each challenge in this thread, but perhaps what I have put is enough to begin a thinking of publishing as something that might, just might deserve a little respect for the tremendous work and dedication of an immense range of people.

    It is a business and, as in any business, in the end you get what you pay for.

  • Comment number 25.

    I bought a Kindle.

    I bought 600+ fairly modern ebooks on ebay for £2.50.

    I downloaded a free program to convert the books to the Kindle format.

    I copied the disc for friends and family.

    What's the problem??

  • Comment number 26.

    @1. At 5:59pm on 07 Dec 2010, jizzlingtons wrote:
    "Why can't you read them on a kindle? What format are they in?"

    It seems they are in Adobe ebook format and Google aint yet done a deal to get them onto the Kindle.
    Not surprising, really, if the Googled version is cheaper than the Kindled copy.
    It'll happen when both sides smell money, and both sides get to carve up the DRM so neither loses. For example, if the Kindled copy can be copied *from* a Kindle and the Googled version can't, or the Kindling can be re-downloaded in the event of loss or e-reader, so there's incentive to buy the more expensive format.

    I'm waiting for three innovations before I buy an e-reader:
    I want books to be sold direct from an Author-supported server, no middle-man, and no middle-man's teams of lawyers, at a cost of less than half-a-dollar for *all* books. Authors often don't make fifty-pee per copy on "real" books, so a communal server would serve all but the pushiest "best-seller" well. It would certainly help novices and "unknowns".
    I want DRM to be completely removed. DRM assumes first and foremost that I am a thief. I dislike that. DRM is an inconvenience to those who *are* thieves, not a deterrent. It is a fence, a very low fence, jumped by the crackers as soon as a new version is invented. All DRM does is make life difficult for *honest* people. (Did you realise that copying a DVD onto your Mac tablet to watch during "lunchtime" on a night shift can gain you five years in the pokey and a fine of a third of a million? It probably never will, but the twenty-minute warning before the main feature does specifically warn about "abuses" like that.)
    I would like a one-for-one free copy of every book I've already bought at considerable expense, and at considerable profit to the industry. The paper copies to go to a charity supporting education in foreign parts, or hospitals in English parts.
    I fully realise none of those will ever happen. I'm not even sure they would be good ideas, but as excuses never to buy e-readers they work well.
    :} N.

  • Comment number 27.

    26. At 3:22pm on 12 Dec 2010, Not-in-my-back-pocket wrote:

    "I want books to be sold direct from an Author-supported server, no middle-man, and no middle-man's teams of lawyers, at a cost of less than half-a-dollar for *all* books. Authors often don't make fifty-pee per copy on "real" books, so a communal server would serve all but the pushiest "best-seller" well. It would certainly help novices and "unknowns". "

    ------------------------

    Oh dear. It could of course be argued that at least one of the functions of a publisher is to decide whether a book is actually good enough to be published in the first place, and that they operate a form of "quality control", for your benefit. If you really would prefer to read the random rantings of the ignorant, stupid, illiterate, vain, insane, moronic, or racist, etc etc, then why would you need a separate device? Just take a few steps deeper into the internet, where a million monkeys with typewriters are already providing that service, completely free of charge, truth, lawyers, and any semblance of quality whatsoever.

  • Comment number 28.

    There are a few comments here saying that paperbacks are better. I disagree. I think they both have their mertis but I prefer ebooks. I am not rich but I am a Librarian. I am also partially-sighted and the fact that ebooks allow me to increase the text size to something I can actually see easily is a real bonus. I have a paperback at home which has been there for about three months. It looks interesting and I want to read it but I'm just put off by the font and text size. Compare this to ebooks, where I have read several in that time because it is easy. Also, I have my phone with me everywhere but I don't carry books around - too heavy.

    There is a lot of books out there that are £3.99 or less. Tis makes an ebook an impulse buy and I've been quite impulsive lately! I self-published my ebook Children of the Elementi for 2.99 precisely for that reason. I could have held out for an agent/publisher but there is a rising trend for people to put their books 'out there'. There is going to be a revolution in publishing, it might not be tomorrow but it is coming!

 

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