Google Enters the E-book Market

This past weekend witnessed a slightly toned down, slightly anxious, but still enthusiastic Book Expo America (BEA), the book industry’s largest trade show. (For a wrap-up of the show, you can visit Galley Cat, Jacket Copy, or Publishers Weekly, and these sites will surely take to still more blogs and sites commenting on the BEA.)

Not surprisingly there was a lot of discussion about all things digital—how the Internet, social media, etc. can help promote and foster discussion about books and the increasing popularity of e-books. Thus, one of the bigger announcements was Google’s decision to enter the retail e-book market and perhaps challenge Amazon and its Kindle.

As we have in the past, we turn to Ted Striphas, author of The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, for some perspective. In a post on his blog, Striphas looks at some of the reasons why Google’s plan might work and why it might not work.

Google’s plan could work since it will not be tied to any particular reading device such as the Kindle of the Sony e-reader. However, most important to its success is its power and reach among Internet users. Striphas writes:

Besides the technology, one of the major problems that has beset e-books thus far has been distribution. Amazon has successfully addressed the issue by providing readers with a reliable, centralized hub from which to download e-titles. There aren’t many companies out there who could compete with Amazon along these lines, but Google is surely one of them. It’s already become a nodal point for people to access e-book content via Book Search and Google Library. Becoming a nodal point for distribution of e-content shouldn’t take a great deal more than a hop, skip, and a jump.

As for why it won’t work, Striphas cites Amazon’s low price ($9.99 for many e-book titles), the question of whether the form will offer something new to readers, and Google’s decision to work with publishers. As Striphas writes, asking publishers to name their own price can be risky:

Book publishers are greedy and do not understand how to sell their products in and to a digital world. As the New York Times today reported, Google intends to allow its partner publishers to set their own e-book prices. If recent history tells us anything, it tells us that the publishers likely will charge something close to print-on-paper prices for content whose material support has already in essence been outsourced to consumers (e.g., in the form of computers, netbooks, and other mobile e-readers). This is unacceptable and will only hinder e-book adoption.

As for the bottom line, Striphas writes:

Only time will tell what will become of Google’s latest venuture into e-books. I see a great many downsides that would really spell disaster for an anxious contingent of publishers who have convinced themselves, as they do about every eight years or so, that e-books will “save” their industry. More optimistically, it is my hope that Google will spur to move more quickly on developing cheaper, better Kindles and related e-reading systems that are even more user-friendly.

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