Google ebooks and the Future of Publishing

by Benjamin Domenech on 1:13 pm December 7, 2010

On a podcast next week, we’ll be chatting with Richard Vigilante, an icon of the publishing world and an author, about the business of book publishing and more. One of the subjects raised will be Google’s new ebookstore, which I expect to be a profound success on Sony devices and Apple devices — though for different reasons.

Both of the stores for Sony and Apple are subpar: Sony’s store offers a lot of selections but is clunky and unwieldy to use, and takes forever to sync. Google will offer equivalent pricing but better delivery (I assume) and eventually better selection. If for some reason you don’t have a Kindle app on your iPad (I don’t know why you wouldn’t) you’ll find that iBooks is both expensive source and has a very limited selection (how limited you ask? It’s a huge factor difference — they don’t even stock the biggest book of the year: George W. Bush’s Decision Points).

So in both cases, if I were Apple or Sony, I would just use this new resource as an excuse to admit defeat and look to get out of the bookselling business (since I’m really a consumer device manufacturer to read those books, and there’s not as much of a premium opportunity there as there is with, say, per song purchases on iTunes). If it’s not profit-effective to be a bookseller, let Google have that business, and instead focus on your device. Perhaps work a deal with Google where you get a portion of purchases, or find another way to monetize it.

I think the Nook reaction has to be very negative, and they need to start thinking about how to respond. Unlike Sony and Apple, Barnes & Noble is primarily a storefront for books, NOT for consumer products or web-friendly devices. Their ebook, while innovative, should properly be viewed merely as a purchasing agent: They want you to buy books, and to have the ability to buy those books from them everpresent in your hand. They make money off book sales first, not devices. Their need for storefront space is costly and burdensome. This destroys their model, and they will have to respond with a different pricing paradigm or die (I think a merger with Borders might actually hasten that death).

Frankly, I think what I’d do is create a subscription-based book access service, where users pay a monthly fee to get access to the BN ebook library (say $10 for 10 books, something like that?), because that might be a way to leverage it and appeal to the ebook marketplace which is increasingly angry about rising costs. But I don’t know if, on the backend, that results in a prohibitive licensing cost, and there are a number of other implementation questions that could arise.

As for Amazon: they’re the biggest player in the ebook market and it’s right to think of Google’s bookstore as a consolidating action within the ebook marketplace, which will probably result in pricewars below the 9.99 level. That’s fine by me, since it benefits consumers — but if they DO get into a pricewar, it’s Amazon, not Google, which I’d think would be favored. Amazon doesn’t have to stock a book publisher if they don’t want to, and if that’s the case, it hurts the publisher more than it hurts Amazon. Google, on the other hand, is unproven as a bookseller and will need to get agreements with publishers for first run stuff in order to make it work — but that won’t stop them from jumping in and immediately throwing their search-based weight around. When you Google a book, you’ll get the ebookstore link before the Amazon link, I can guarantee it.

As for looking forward — within a few years, I expect the ebook market to become the book market. The top tier of books will still end up on paper, but everything below bestseller status is going to go straight to web. And it’ll happen faster than people think. The single market vanished overnight when iTunes and downloadable MP3s arrived, and I think ebooks will essentially turn non-color intensive, non-children’s book publishing on dead trees into a boutique service for fans who like retro objects, along the lines of vinyl records today.

Previous post:

Next post: