Google has rolled out its long awaited digital ebooks program, the next step in the company’s ambitious but controversial project to scan and make searchable the estimated 130 million books that exist in print versions.
“The next logical iteration for us is to open up a bookstore,” said Scott Dougall, product management director for Google eBooks. This means that Google is now in direct competition with other ebook sellers, such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Sony and others—with one significant difference: While ebooks for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook and other ebook devices are readable solely on those devices (with a few kludgey exceptions, such as the Kindle iPhone app), Google eBooks can be displayed on any device that can access the web.
You can read eBooks through a web browser, or via free downloadable apps for Apple and Android devices. Dougall said reading an eBook on multiple devices is seamless, allowing you to start reading on an iPad during breakfast, for example, continuing on an Android phone during your commute then switching to a computer at work without any hassle.
So far, as part of the Google Books initiative, the company has scanned 50 million books in over 100 countries. At today’s launch, more than three million of those scanned editions will be available as eBooks—both free books that are in the public domain and “hundreds of thousands” of books for sale, according to Dougall.
Google has not changed its ranking algorithms and books will continue to appear in regular search results (try Huckleberry Finn and scroll down to the bottom of the result page). Google has also introduced a dedicated eBooks search page at books.google.com/ebooks that limits results to only books available in the eBooks format.
Partnering With Authors, Publishers & Booksellers
Google’s efforts to scan books have generated controversy from nearly the beginning. “We started in 2004 with the goal of scanning all the books in the world and making them searchable,” said Dougall. In late 2005 the Authors Guild of America and Association of American Publishers both sued Google, citing “massive copyright infringement.” Other lawsuits followed. In 2008 the Authors Guild came to terms with Google, though the U.S. Department of Justice objected to some of the agreement. Finally, in late 2009 a revised settlement agreement was struck.
While there are still unresolved issues, Google has moved forward with authors, publishers and even “competing booksellers” with the launch of eBooks. More than 4,000 publishers are participating in the program, as well booksellers Powells, Alibris and participating members of the American Booksellers Association. Individual authors can participate in the program as well (instructions, agreements and tools are here).
For each group of stakeholders, Google has put in place revenue sharing agreements. The ultimate goal? “Sell more books,” said Dougall.
Google will undoubtedly sell many ebooks, but it is entering a crowded marketplace where the leader has a Google-like dominance. Amazon currently controls about 65% of the ebook market, with Barnes & Noble claiming a 20% share. Google’s advantage is its cloud-centric approach that allows viewing of books across multiple platforms rather than locking you into a particular device.
But as Google itself has proven with its ongoing dominance in search, habits die hard, and many people may be reluctant to let go of the investments of both time and money they’ve made in other platforms.
Want to know more about what Google is doing with books? See Search Engine Land’s comprehensive coverage of Google Books.