Google Enters the E-Book Market at Last

For months the publishing world has been waiting for word that Google eBooks, often referred to as Google Editions, was ready to start selling e-books to customers. Today, with an announcement on its blog, Google unveiled its long-anticipated e-bookstore.

The announcement called Google eBooks “the largest e-books collection in the world with more than three million titles including hundreds of thousands for sale.” It touted the program’s wide range of offerings, which include recent best sellers such as James Patterson’s Cross Fire and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, as well as classics such as Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, the two Dickens titles just picked by Oprah for her book club. (A good number of the new e-bookstore’s titles, including at least one edition of Great Expectations, are free.)

According to the announcement, Google eBooks will be bought, read, and stored entirely in the cloud.  That means they can be accessed using a free, password-protected Google account. They will be accessible via Web browsers or supported devices, including Android phones and iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches, and the Nook and Sony e-readers. The Kindle is not mentioned in Google’s list of supported devices and reader apps.

Google also noted that its “independent bookselling partners,” including Powell’s, Alibris, and participating members of the American Booksellers Association, will be able to sell Google eBooks. “You can choose where to buy your e-books like you choose where to buy your print books, and keep them all on the same bookshelf regardless of where you got them,” the announcement said. Some observers wondered, however, how much of a real advantage that would give independent booksellers if Google’s eBookstore winds up offering readers the lowest prices.

The Chronicle asked Garrett Kiely, director of the University of Chicago Press, what Google’s e-books venture might mean for scholarly publishers, many of whom are active partners with Google. Mr. Kiely’s press has more than 6,000 of its titles in the Google Books program.

“I’m excited by Google eBooks since Google has enormous reach and influence, though my sense that this will be a ‘game changer’ has been muted somewhat by all the activity in this space in the last year,” Mr. Kiely said. “It’s hard to refer to the e-book market as ‘mature,’ but it’s at least fair to say that Amazon has settled into a strong leadership role with B&N, Apple, Kobo, and Sony vying for slices of the market. Google has now entered the fray, and I think it may take some time, effort, and marketing spend before they achieve significant market share.” He praised Google for working with independent bookstores, which he said have not previously had much of a presence in the e-book market.

Mr. Kiely added that he hoped university presses would take Google eBooks as yet more evidence that it’s time to get serious about e-books. “This is another indication that we need to get our act together and recognize that e-books are an increasingly important part of our mission to disseminate scholarship via all available channels,” he said.

Expect to see a lot of discussion and analysis in the coming days as people assess Google eBooks’ offerings and features. One early, positive reaction came from a Publishers Weekly blogger, who identified “three cool things about Google eBookstore,” including an intuitive interface (“you already know how to use it”) and access to e-versions of scanned books whose publishers haven’t even come up with digital copies yet.

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