Google’s long-awaited electronic bookstore has finally arrived with the promise of great “openness” for all. But in the end, Google’s offering is merely another in a long line of ebook platforms that offers some pluses and minuses but in no way, shape or form revolutionizes the market. Whether you want to talk about pricing, selection, business model, organization, availability on different PC and mobile operating systems or any other basic criteria for comparison, Google eBooks is either a little better or a little worse than its predecessors. Bottom line? Very little innovation here but a set of features that may be appealing for some consumers.
Basically, Google has opened an ebook store stocked with about 200,000 commercial books comprised of the usual stuff you find in stores. That compares with about 300,000 commercial ebooks from Barnes & Noble¹ and almost 800,000 in Amazon’s Kindle store. I can’t figure out how many books are in Apple’s iBookstore but it appears to be a lot less than Amazon or B&N. Availability of recent and popular stuff in the Google store seems pretty good.
Prices not controlled by publishers (aka not on the “agency model”) are higher that Amazon’s in all cases I could find. For example, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Ice fantasy series, A Game of Thrones, is $7.01 at Google and $6.29 at Amazon. The start of the world’s most romantic teenage vampire series, Twilight, is $9.99 at Google and $8.99 at Amazon. Of course, four of the big five publishers have worked hard to wipe out discounting with agency pricing (which lets them set a uniform price across all ebookstores), so Amazon’s price advantage is much less significant than it used to be.
And though Google has added a vast repertoire of reader reviews thanks to a partnership with Goodreads, the ebookstore web site itself still seems awfully spare and lags far behind B&N’s or Amazon’s in fit and finish. For example, ebook search results can only be sorted by relevance or date published, while Amazon also offers sorting price, sales rate and star rating. Amazon recently added gifting to the Kindle store, another cool feature so far missing from Google.
Google emphasizes that they also have some 2.8 million older, out-of-copyright free ebooks, the vast majority of which are useless effluvia with a few tens of thousands of volumes previously widely available for free on other ebook platforms (think Mark Twain, Jane Austen or Herman Melville).
Purchases must be made with a Google checkout account, which can be added to a typical Google account you may already have for gmail or other services. This could be a hurdle for the adoption of Google’s ebook platform because I’m increasingly convinced that the failure of Google’s payment network to gain much popularity is holding back the company’s Android app store for paid apps. Apple through iTunes and Amazon through its vast web site already have payment info on tens of millions of consumers, so they can easily tap existing customers for new offerings. Google not so much.
One aspect that has been largely overlooked in all the discussion of Google eBooks is the powerful push it could potentially give for adoption of Adobe’s “Digital Editions” DRM. Previously used by Barnes & Noble and Sony but ignored by Apple and Amazon, the Adobe DRM allows consumers to buy from one ebookstore but view with a reader from another ebookstore. That is, you can now buy an ebook from Google and read it on your Nook or buy an ebook from Sony and read it with one of Google e-reader apps. Well, that’s true at least in theory — there are inevitably technical snafus that have to be resolved whenever a new vendor comes aboard. Google’s entry adds more platforms and apps for B&N and Sony ebook buyers as well as opening a new supply of ebooks for those devices.
If you check out the page Adobe maintains that lists “Digital Edition” compatible devices, you’ll discover that Sony, Koboi and even Barnes & Noble’s Nook can now read ebooks bought from Google. Their press release touting this compatibility is here.
The Google app's natural spacing
It seems like the Google effort is great news for Sony ereader owners, since they have the worst ebookstore, the highest ebook prices and the fewest platform choices of apps. Likewise, people who become big fans of the Google ebook ecosystem may be well-served by buying Sony hardware.
What about a simple comparison of the iPhone/iPad app? I’m a big user of the Kindle and its app generally has more features than Google’s app, including highlighting, looking up words in a dictionary and so on.
But the Google app does have one setting that makes me incredibly jealous and that’s allowing for a non-justified right margin, a jagged ending of words from line to line that makes reading easier on the eye (or maybe the brain). In the Kindle app, you’re stuck with ugly justified lines and uneven spacing between words. Yuck.
¹It’s really hard to tell how many of the 2.1 million ebooks B&N has when you search for everything are in-copyright, modern books. I’m estimating by adding together the categories of “Under $10″ at 202,000 plus another 100,000 or so listed in the “$10 to $25,” “$25 to $50,” and “Over $50″ categories. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to tell how many ebooks are in Apple’s iBookstore.