Google begins its rumble with Amazon

Google begins its rumble with Amazon

Summary: Amazon has some new competition for the hearts and minds of book publishers and readers, which is a very good thing. But the news that Google is poised to enter the downloadable bookselling market is of mixed value to readers and publishers, because we're headed into a format/delivery model war that will wipe out the value of many millions of books people purchase over the next year.


Amazon has some new competition for the hearts and minds of book publishers and readers, which is a very good thing. But the news that Google is poised to enter the downloadable bookselling market is of mixed value to readers and publishers, because we're headed into a format/delivery model war that will wipe out the value of many millions of books people purchase over the next year.

Google is talking about a "digital book ecosystem," which is essentially a closed system that depends on authentication of users, caching of limited numbers of HTML books on a device, and a security regime that probably will discourage any deep linking or social features for the time being. Google's current book downloads, consisting of about 500,000 out-of-copyright and a few tens of thousands of copyrighted books available only in "limited preview" and "snippet" sample forms, uses a "My Library" approach to collecting books and providing repeated access access to them. Books downloaded from Google Books are presented in PDF format, different than the reported formats discussed by Google this week.

Think the music subscription approach that Microsoft takes with Zune Pass, where ongoing access to the service is required if you are going to keep using your library. One of the primary benefits of the Kindle, at least for people I've talked with, is the ability to access their books locally rather than over the Net. For all the proprietary issues Kindle-formatted books have, they do the one thing readers want well: make e-books useful anywhere. The same is true of books downloaded onto various mobile phone and PC platforms.

Moreover, the Google service will apparently rely on some form of authenticated HTML access to books purchased, rather than the PDF format it currently uses for downloadable books in Google Books. Not the ePUB format, which the entire industry should be adopting (and adapting, because it needs work, too), nor any of the downloadable formats, such as .MOBI or other formats compatible with the popular Stanza reader from Lexcycle, now a subsidiary of Amazon. Adoption may not rely on downloading a new reader, since Google's service will reportedly work in a browser, but so many people have installed these other readers that there will be some perceived migration cost among users.

The battle may take the form of a price war, though I think it will not end until e-book data is standardized enough to work across hardware and software platforms is over. That means that after the shake-out is over, most of the e-books purchased by now and during the e-book wars will likely be obsolete and unreadable sometime in the future. Compared to books, which are infinitely useful, that's a big step down. And for publishers, who will likely face readers' wrath without Google's help, that's a reason to think twice before doing a deal that allows Google some input on pricing.

Accounts vary as to whether Google will set prices or whether publishers will—I tend to believe the publishers will have control of prices for the most part, as the private briefing Google held with publishers during BookExpo America this week would have turned into a bloodbath if they'd tried to dictate prices, as Amazon has.

I'd only point back to my recent posting on the curation of e-books being a significant value-added service as a way of advising publishers to think twice before moving forward. Facilitating social connection through books is an extremely viable way to support profits. The privacy concerns raised by Richard Koman are also a concern, though I don't think Google will display ads in the books it sells. It will, however, harvest more personal data from book usage.

All in all, the field is only being set for a showdown, one that is going to produce upheaval in publishing (a good thing) and a lot of wasted spending by readers (which is a bad thing).

Topics: Hardware, Google, Mobility

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  • Let 'em duke it out forever

    Format wars delay acceptance, so as a diehard
    hardcover aficionado, I'll be cheering all the
    • Yes, just makes it hard for authors and publishers

      We need the war, but the authors thinking about self-publishing are the
      one group I think will be hardest pressed by this, because they have to
      place some bets with their work. Publishers will eventually see that the
      format has to be social, open and reliable for them to make an
      investment in books that endure long enough to see a significant return.

      But, with more books than ever before being printed, you'll always have
      paper to fall back on, I believe.
      Mitch Ratcliffe
  • So early adopters get punished again, as it should be.

    I've been saying from the start that we don't need no <more> stinking hardware to read books. If I can't read a book on the hardware of my choice, then I'm not interested.
  • Amazon needs to support PDF and other standards

    Good on Google. I hope it disrupts Amazon and its stance
    on Kindle. We are now finding that Amazon is trying to
    use its muscle to restrict publisher selling ebooks in
    pdf format.

    We now have the ridiculous situation where Amazon will
    not sell you a pdf ebook version even when a Kindle
    version is not available. The solution, is to purchase
    direct from the publisher now - if Google can redress
    this nonsense, then good on them.
  • RE: Google begins its rumble with Amazon

    Even more ridiculous is the fact that one Kindle, the DX, will
    display PDFs, but the others don't. Then, you get into
    restricted audio playback of books, etc. We need a big
    shake-out, but it will come down to data standards, not the
    make and model of an ebook reader device.
    Mitch Ratcliffe
  • RE: Google begins its rumble with Amazon

    Were I an author of books, I would be very concerned that these e-book conflicts would lead to a combination of the RIAA/CD disaster and the ongoing newspaper debacle. That is, stubborn adherence to an outmoded business model [print, in this case] produces economic disaster for all. The authors, bound contractually to publishers of physical print media, will likely be dragged unwillingly along towards lower sales and income. Expediting all this? Clever hackers "freeing" the media out of a sense of outrage that groups of electrons that cost so little are priced so high. Signs of this future? Thousand upon thousands of e-books already available on the net for nothing. All this is avoidable by learning from the RIAA debacle and moving towards e-book prices that reflect the absence of costs for materials, printing, publishing, shipping and so on. Personally, I don't think that there's a chance in h*ll that the publishers will see the future and move accordingly.
  • RE: Google begins its rumble with Amazon

    Why should early adopters lose out, that is a choice that Amazon and any other players can chose to make - or not. Unlike owning a BetaMax tape which there were physical costs in replacing with a VHS tape - a supplier of eBooks today could easily make a consumers entire 'library' available in the new format when the dust settles. A vendor who want to make money with their solution today (Amazon) should commit to protecting their consumers investment - it is a no-additional cost commitment.
  • Great - more DRM hassles pushed on us by greedy jerks

    If I buy the rights to view/use/listen to a piece of media, I should be able to use it on any device I own. Restricting that right should be against the law.

    I will not financially support ANY reader which restricts my rights with DRM. I won't buy the reader. I won't buy the books. I won't pay for it as a service.

    If somebody creates a download service and reader which uses open formats that I could read on my PC, my iPhone, my iPod Touch, or anywhere else I choose, I'd buy it in a hearbeat. I buy a lot of "real" books, so I'd be all over a device/service that lets me read whatever, wherever, whenever, and on the device of my own choosing.

    We cannot allow the book publishers to become the next RIAA or MPAA. Haven't the publishers seen how much people despise those two organizations? Why would book publishers follow in their footsteps? The people at those two organizations are complete morons still living in the middle of LAST century. Technology could be making them rich, but instead they spend all of their time harassing the ONLY people who buy their products. It doesn't get any stupider than that.

    Make the devices easy to use and keep the e-book prices cheap. You will sell plenty. In fact, you will sell more than you do now. If the Kindle didn't use proprietary DRM formats, I'd already have purchased a couple of them. As it is now, Amazon loses my business instead. They would sell a lot more e-books if they used an open book format. I'm sure they realize this, but they are handcuffed by idiot publishers who are stupidly using the RIAA and MPAA approach as a model of distribution.
  • Moot Point

    I really don't care about some device to look at ebooks on, so I never really followed the whole Kindle thing in the first place. The winner is gonna be the one that let's me view docs on MY devices when I want (including offline). If I buy an ebook, I also expect to use it indefinitely, just as if I bought the book at a store, so if Google's doing a subscription, it's out as well.

    Until then, I'll keep buying ebooks as I always have and keep passing this particular dilemma by.
  • Lots of Free Books for Kindle Aleady

    When will someone get this story straight? There are thousands and thousands of FREE books available for Kindle in Mobipocket format through sites like,, Project Gutenberg, etc. including lots of out-of-copyright classics. I have had the Kindle II since it came out and have read perhaps 30 books on it - with great enjoyment - and haven't had to pay a time for the privilege.