Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

Summary: Google eBooks is either a boon for content and device providers within the eBooks ecosystem or a potentially devastating competitor.


As Sam Diaz reported this morning, Google launched its e-books site this morning. No longer called Google Editions, the site is now called Google eBooks. While Sam asked if the Kindle and Nook can survive in the face of Google's entry into the market (I think the answer is yes), I'd suggest that Google will most likely just make platform-agnostic eBooks more mainstream than Amazon has with its Kindle apps for various platforms.

According to the Wall Street Journal,

...the Google e-book store will have a full complement of competitively priced best-sellers. It will also contain a wide array of scholarly, scientific and professional titles that may not be available elsewhere, making it "the largest e-book store on the planet," said Scott Dougall, a Google product management director.

Although available now only in the US, Google eBooks should be available internationally early in 2011.

OK, so it's big, it's widely available, it has hundreds of thousands of books for sale, and millions of free and public domain e-books. Does that make it a Kindle-killer? And what does it bring to the table for the entire e-book ecosystem?

I had a conversation last week with Copia Executive Vice President Ben Lowinger. Copia provides not only e-book sales but, more importantly, a sophisticated social layer to the reading experience. As evidenced by the extensive reviews and interactions on Amazon, as well as Copia's growing success, there is room for many angles and competitors in the e-book space.

Copia, for example, allows users, regardless of where they purchased their books (electronic or otherwise), to add them to a digital library for discussion, rating, and sharing on either Facebook or Twitter. For Copia, while a service like Google eBooks will hardly be good news for its e-books sales, the more people accessing and reading e-books on any platform and then discussing them on Copia is very good news for the stickiness and marketability of the site.

Better yet, for sites like Copia, Google allows external book sellers to leverage its reach. Google eBooks is an extension of its book search tool, which points users to various outlets for books. Thus, a user could find and purchase a book on Copia via Google's book search/store; for a cut of the sale to Google, Copia can drive more traffic to its arguably more important social services.

In fact, Copia would be a great acquisition target for Google, bringing a critical social aspect to Google's new bookstore that, as with all things Google, is missing.

Given that Google has adopted Adobe Digital Editions, the ability to use books purchased from Google eBooks on any EPUB/Adobe eBook-compatible is a significant advantage. While DRM remains a complicated issues with eBooks, the adoption of flexible formats moves us closer to solutions that make sense in libraries and schools and ensures that every device except the Amazon Kindle is compatible with books purchased from Google.

Amazon, as far as I'm concerned, with their closed (albeit highly successful) model, has made their bed on this one. However, Amazon is so entrenched and the Kindle is cheap and useful enough for straight reading that Google will hardly be the death of Amazon's e-book business, particularly with their cross-platform clients.

Google's real weakness here is that, while they bring new ways for partners to make money from their massive reach, and the bring a seriously platform agnostic approach to e-books, they once again fail to incorporate the social aspects that are increasingly vital to users embracing web applications.

My fingers, however, are doubly crossed (it's making it hard to type, but it's important) that Google eBooks will be integrated sooner than later with Google Apps, such that corporate or school libraries can make use of purchased works from within Apps. If anyone can sort out the DRM of shared book collections in a school and make them accessible from a collaboration platform, it's Google.

Thoughts? Talk back below.

Topics: Google, Hardware, Mobility

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • No "ugly"

    Cheap and efficient distribution of knowledge and culture is one ultimate goal of the electronically connected world. $10 for most e-books is outrageous, just like a buck per track for music. If they sold e-books for a buck and albums for the same, few consumers would bother with pirated material, and a lot of people who are currently not consumers would buy/sample books and music, just because it is cheap. If it sucks (to you), it is not a big deal, you just delete it.

    If Google can help bring sanity to e-book and e-music distribution and pricing, all the power to them. It makes absolutely no sense to have devices costing a couple of hundred bucks being able to store books and music with a "value" in the tens of thousands of dollars.
    • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly


      <b> Cheap and efficient distribution of knowledge and culture is one ultimate goal of the electronically connected world. </b>

      Aren't there a wealth of free options for music and other forms of culture? There are legal free MP3s, even Amazon distributes them. There are legal free books. There sites like Youtube and Dailymotion where you can listen to songs anytime. There is also Pandora. So yes, what you mentioned does exist is great quantities.

      <b>$10 for most e-books is outrageous, just like a buck per track for music. If they sold e-books for a buck and albums for the same, few consumers would bother with pirated material</b>

      That argument does not fly at all. The same seemingly underprivileged high school and college kids who people always point out as being the victims (as well as grandmothers and the terminally ill) of the RIAA are the same ones who itch to get $150 jeans and sneakers with a 5000% markup. So why is the price outrageous? Not to mention, audiophiles can use Emusic for $.50 or less per song. There are several other sites with similar models.

      The reason that these <i>reasonably priced</i> options don't take off, is because people can get them for free and don't consider or care about getting it legitimately.

      Am I wrong?
      • Yes, you are wrong.


        Economister wasn't making a social or "fairness" statement at all, he was making an economic one. His point was simple: ebooks are priced above the pain point for most consumers, so their adoption and purchase are being limited. I personally will NEVER purchase an ebook because they have eliminated resale and reuse of all electronic works. I have paper books that have passed through multiple owners, so they were truly worth their purchase price. The current restrictions and pricing make ebooks completely uneconomical for me.
        terry flores
      • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

        @Terry Flores - That is an interesting point you make. So how is 'giving' away an ebook I paid $10 for any different than handing a physical book I bought to someone else to read for free? And what about the second-hand book stores that make a profit off of books they find at yard sales/flea markets? The writer does not profit from that, does he? Nor does the reseller.

        Economister says that $10 for an ebook is too expensive. I agree wholeheartedly. If it wasn't so much for a pile of electronic 1's and 0's, ($1 or $2, instead of $10) I would be less likely to give it away to someone I knew. I would just tell them to buy it themselves.

        Do the suppliers think that I don't let my wife read any ebook I purchase without buying it again? Of course not, and that is exactly WHY they charge what they do for them. Writers, like songwriters, rarely 'do it' for the fun of it, they are out to make - wait for it - MONEY. As rightfully they should. Charging what they do for the ebooks helps to offset the 'piracy' (if you want to call it that) perpetrated by those that let others 'have' or read the books they purchased.

        This is really getting to be a touchy subject these days, and I can certainly see why. I see no solutions on the horizon, either. Let's see what Google does with it, as they have a HUGE collection of free books to download. I think they would give them ALL away if they could put rotating/flashing ads at the top of every page! Hey, the kids' gotta eat, you know!
      • Economic vs social considerations


        I do not know what the price elasticities of demand for music and books are, but I suspect it is fairly high, given the nature of the goods. It is therefore very possible that the rights holders would make more money by lowering their prices substantially, for two reasons.

        1. "Legitimate" buyers would buy much more.

        2. Pirates would buy instead of "steal". It is a lot simpler to go to a legitimate site and just pay a few bucks for and handful of albums, than to search the internet for "free" stuff.

        Publishers could sell music at different "levels" from basic DL through cloud storage to a fancy signed box sets through the mail. I think RIAA has been awfully slow and incompetent in taking advantage of this new opportunity. If I am not mistaken, artist used to make about a buck per album. If they sold the album electronically for $1, kept 70% and doubled their sales they would already be ahead, and the consumers would be very happy. The RIAA would of course be left out, and I guess at the end of the day that is still the main issue here, given their apparent lobbying power.

        From a social perspective, it is the collective knowledge of man that makes us who we are and is responsible for our wealth. Gutenberg started a knowledge/information/culture dissemination revolution, which benefited mankind immensely. I think we owe it to ourselves to allow the electronic revolution to run its natural course, for a possibly just as big of a second revolution as the one started by Gutenberg. I do believe the creators deserve to make a good living, but not to the detriment of mankind. There is still way too much ignorance in this world.
      • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly


        <b>@terry flores</b>
        I wholeheartedly agree with you making that choice. You do what works for you, and everything you mentioned was a legal alternative to downloading the eBook from somewhere like Pirate Bay.

        Exactly! The only part I don't really agree with is the 1's and 0's. Those ones and zeros go through a process of writing, editing, production and otherwise to exist. And although the more sold will cover the initial cost of production, many companies go under from not charging appropriate amounts and overestimating sales, and forget to incorporate the cost of theft.

        1. I won't argue as much with this one. I may or may not be true. But let's take it as true.

        2. I don't believe that at all. And I honestly think your're way off on this one. With the Frostwires and other Limewire alternatives and derivatives, and torrenting sites a plenty, it is easier to get things illegally than it is to brew a pot of coffee.

        Also, music costs have come down incrementally. A single can be purchased for $.99, when it used to cost $5+ when I was in HS. Also, your idea about cloud storage and boxed sets is pretty ill-informed. There are a wealth of those and they occur in music and movies. Check Amazon. There are many cloud options. Also, because of bandwidth limitations, not everyone want to store their music and movies there, when local is faster.

        Also, I think it is a weak argument to say that artists would make more on their own. Grass roots musicians rarely if ever can eat off of that minor success. They gain the exposure hundredfold by joining up with the record companies.

        Look, I don't like the music industry. I think it is drivel and turning many of us into drones. I don't listen to most music, but I do buy my songs when i like one or two. But with some many alternatives for music, is not the more empowering thing to support non mainstream artists, instead of taking what we somehow feel we should be entitled to?
      • One more kick at the can


        You closed by saying:".....instead of taking what we somehow feel we should be entitled to?"

        Entitlement, when it comes to copyrights, is a tricky issue that is often glossed over by many copyrights advocates, as when they call infringement "stealing".

        Firstly, historically, there never was copyright until relatively recently, at least when compared to physical property rights, which have been accepted throughout the history of man. Copyrights is a result of legislation, and not some deep historical tradition/custom.

        Secondly, lets say on the day a copyright is about to expire (and you would be legally entitled to use the works free of charge), the owner successfully lobbies/bribes lawmakers into extending the copyrights for another 20 years, even if, as in the US, the founding fathers did not feel that copyrights should last for an unreasonably long time, and certainly felt they should expire and the works enter the public domain.

        What is "entitlement" in that context? Is the rights holder entitled to the extension of the copyrights at the expense of the public domain and millions of users? If those with the resources to give them privileged access to lawmakers use those resources and that access for their own enrichment and to the detriment of ordinary citizens, should those citizens just accept an unjust situation or should they somehow fight back, even if that involves breaking that particular law?

        If, during the civil rights movement, nobody was willing to break unjust laws, maybe blacks would still be prohibited from many facilities in the US.

        It is just too convenient to talk about stealing and taking things you are not entitled too, while the reality is far more complex.
      • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly


        See, that's the problem. You're veering. You go from saying the music costs too much and is impractical, to saying that it is an issue with copyright.

        There is a major difference, by the way, between the civil rights movement and people wanting to download music for free. During the civil rights movement, by standing up for their perceived rights, these people were making huge sacrifices, i.e. walking long distances to work instead of using the bus, getting kicked, beaten, hosed and set upon by dogs.

        The vast majority of music downloaders are not looking for equality or justice. They are looking to get something for nothing. And many times, in large quantities. That statement is based on my nonscientific dealing with the internet generation, as I was in HS when Napster first arrived on the scene.

        If you are arguing that their wares should not be sold for a reasonable price, what do you think a reasonable price is, so as to recoup costs and pay royalties to the executives, songwriters, backup singers, authors, or whoever else contributed to the published works?

        Also, when enough people buy a product and it becomes popular, many times the price goes down. Videos Games, DVDs and CDs are a prime example. So where does the balance lie between illegal downloading and reasonable cost?
      • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

        @PlayFair Omg i want all!! <a href="">chanel rose bags</a> <a href="">chanel shoulder bags</a> <a href="">chanel tote bags</a>
    • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

      If you look at the Amazon example, you can get a feel for how the pricing goes. Books that have passed their copyright period are free (e.g. Pride and Prejudice) or cheap (99 cents for the compete works of Jane Austen). The $10 is what some authors and publishers want for their hard work Some authors (particularly self-publishers) require much less. It is the free market system working as it should.

      And I didn't understand your comment about it not making sense for an inexpensive device to hold value. E.g. my development computer contains many thousands of dollars worth of software. Could you explain?
  • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

    The public domain books I've tried from Google are not scanned straight and appear crooked. Some of them seemed to be scanned with OCR and have errors. It's not that great.
    • You get what you (don't) pay for.


      Just like torn or mutilated books found in a flea market, some books are better than others. Some books are fully proofread after OCR (Project Gutenberg level), some are down at the image scan level only. In some cases the errors are not the operator's fault, I've found situations where the original paper book had pages or sections missing!

      So it depends on what you want: if you are looking for quality, you have to understand the potential sources for a text and choose your option carefully.
      terry flores
    • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

      Google is driven by math - and from what I read of how they scan anything they patented a method to un-distort the pages as the book is placed onto a scanning table (thus get two pages at a time) then covert the scan into a graphic that is then searchable within Google (only?). I've looked up a few books in their index and they are searchable while in the browser - the minute you download in them in PDF they are NOT searchable at all. You have to run them through an OCR in order to search them offline.
  • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

    There's room for all in the ebook market. It is the wave of the future and now. But it shouldn't be cheap. It should be fair. I believe most are. And those that aren't will even out. Now, download GRANT ME, a young adult novella. You'll never underestimate your dog or God again! Sassy Southern suspense follows Serenity Prayer. Enjoy!
  • Yeah...

    I don't care, I download everything illegally.
    I'm sorry, but that's life.
    • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

      @alex_reyes At least you know its illegal.
      While not exactly the same as stealing physical property,
      it is still stealing and is punishable, as it should be for the
      real abusers.
  • RE: Google eBooks: The good, the bad, and the ugly

    I would be good if it worked well. But it's not. <br><br>We don't have the iPhone app in Europe, but the website is not adapted at all for mobile devices, and barely adapted for regular PCs. Type one book, you may have a lot of not relevant answers if you just want to read a book. Furthermore, scanned books quality is usually abysmal. I think that nobody checked and edited the result, it's borderline unreadable. <br><br>What's the point google? Again launching a half-baked service, waiting for the steam to come? For now, it is NOT usable as a library, and users would do better to go to other services, some being also free.
  • Another Wave?

    Another google product in perpetual beta? I hope not.
    • My gmail works just fine thank you (nt)


  • Kindle and Nook can only survive if they evolve

    The Nook already started evolving with the color version. It is no longer a single purpose device.

    But the Kindle, although good for what it does, it is still a B&W device that is only good for reading books .... NOTHING ELSE.

    During recent flight, I sat between two people with e-readers. One had a Kindle, the other a Nook (b&w). To my surprise, the Nook was a better e-reader. While the text on the Kindle looked a little blurry and images looked pixelated, the text on the Nook looked sharp (book-like) and images actually looked like b&w images (no pixelation). I asked the guy with the Kindle if his batteries where low, and he told me that he fully charged the device before the flight ... no change the problem was due to low power.

    I'm afraid Amazon is in the loosing side on this one. Although the Kindle is not an old product, it is quickly becoming an irrelevant and obsolete device. The introduction of the iPad and the evolution of the Nook is rapidly eating the market where the Kindle used to be the king.

    Although the market is still young ... it is evolving at a very fast speed. So far, it looks like Amazon is becoming stagnant and not evolving fast enough for the Kindle to survive (as a physical device, it will survive as software e-reader). The Kindle needs to evolve into a multi-purpose COLOR device if it wants to be relevant by the end of next year.