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Google Enters the E-Book Fray. What Does It Mean?

The new Google eBooks platform could change the way readers look at digital literature.

When one of the country's biggest technology companies--a company that has already digitized more than 15 million volumes as part of a mission to make humanity's literary treasures available to all--decides to sell e-books, it's easy to see the move as a defining moment.

In the March Campus Technology feature "Can Tech Transcend the Textbook?" publishers and educators debate why e-textbooks have lagged behind the e-book revolution.

But it might be more accurate to call Google's entry into the e-book biz a validating moment, particularly for the publishing industry. The very company that generated so many headlines (not to mention controversy) by providing online access to millions of titles for free is now promoting a retail/wholesale model. In the process, it's sanctioning the idea that not all information on the Web is free.

In December, the Internet search giant launched Google eBooks exclusively in the United States. Within a few weeks, its free e-book reader apps had been downloaded more than a million times. (The company promised to roll out an international version of eBooks in early 2011.) The service offers access to more than 3 million titles--including classics, which users can view for free, and current bestsellers, which readers can buy and store in the cloud on Google's servers.

Readers can get to those books from virtually any modern, HTML5-enabled Web browser. The idea that readers should have browser-based access to their e-books across multiple devices is a key component of Google's model. Amazon seemed to like the idea too, and the company stole a bit of Google's thunder when, a day after the Google eBooks launch, it announced Kindle for the Web, which allows its customers to read Kindle e-books on a browser.

According to Google spokesperson Jeannie Hornung, readers currently can access their eBooks from about 85 different devices, including the Sony Reader and the Barnes & Noble Nook, which are compatible with Adobe Digital Editions, a library tool that allows users to download DRM-protected EPUB or PDF files to their computers or handhelds.

On the retail side, what the Google eBookstore provides readers isn't really that different from the offerings of Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. But what Google has created is more than just an e-book outlet. Google eBooks is actually a distribution platform for digital books that is device-independent and open to resellers and small publishers.

Openness and Choice
Google has described eBooks as a commerce layer within the Google Book Search project. "This is really about extending the Book Search experience," explained Hornung. "We're taking it one step further, giving people a way to buy books from the retailer of their choice and access them in the cloud forever. For us, this is about openness and choice."

That's been the company's rallying cry since it began digitizing books from libraries back in 2002. The company launched the Google Book Search project in 2004, which opened up its growing database of books to online readers. But the company was criticized for scanning books still under copyright, and it was sued for copyright infringement in 2005, first by the Authors Guild, then by the Association of American Publishers. Google settled with these groups in 2008.

The company seems well on its way to repairing its reputation with publishers with its eBook platform strategy. Google eBooks launched with about 4,000 participating publishers, and it has begun distributing books from small independent publishers such as Author Solutions Inc. (ASI), whose imprints include AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, and Xlibris.

"Google eBooks could very likely change the way publishing views book and content distribution, and we are pleased to be an early adopter of this model," said Kevin Weiss, ASI president and CEO, in a statement. "It's yet another opportunity for emerging authors to cast aside the obstacles of traditional distribution options and make their works available to readers worldwide."

At this year's Digital Book World conference, held in January in New York, Google announced that it had partnered with more than 180 resellers--independent bookstores such as Powell's and Alibris--nationwide.

"Google eBooks is a platform designed to support both retail and wholesale, so we can sell directly to consumers, but also through other booksellers' Web sites," Hornung said. "This is definitely more than just a typical e-bookstore."

Sean Sullivan, senior product manager for Cengage Learning's Questia online library service, saluted Google's efforts to "preserve the works of mankind and make sure that they are everlasting on the Web." But he also said he's glad to see the company becoming a bookseller.

"Google is helping to reset expectations among consumers that digital content has value," said Sullivan, noting that Questia is a subscription service that provides access to an online library of copyrighted materials for academic research. "Over the past decade, search engines have conditioned people to think of information as free, and that has been a challenge for publishers to overcome. Now the very player who helped to set those expectations is starting to charge for content. I think that's going to help users understand that a certain level of authoritative material needs to be paid for."

Next Stop: E-Textbooks?
Of course, Google has yet to dip its gigantic toe into the textbook market, and Hornung said the company has no current plans to do so. "There are some textbooks for sale in the store," she said, "and certainly students can benefit from all the public domain content, but Google has no textbook-specific strategy."

Vineet Madan, vice president of strategy and business development in McGraw-Hill's Higher Education group, said he doesn't expect the entry of another "flat e-book publisher" (meaning, essentially, a provider of digital copies of print books) to have much of an impact on the textbook market. "That's just not where the game is going to be played," he insisted. "Going forward, it's not going to be about a book-centered world, but about innovative ways to deliver educational outcomes."

If Google ever does decide to get into the e-textbook business, said Matt MacInnis, co-founder and CEO of e-book publishing startup Inkling, it won't be able to compete with flat files. "Google will have to offer students an experience that is noticeably better than the experience they get from a print book," he said. "Otherwise, the students won't want it. Time and time again, surveys show that, when students are offered a choice between print and scanned books they can read on a Web browser, they choose the print experience."

Inkling is one of a new breed of e-textbook publisher that is eschewing the "book" metaphor to provide textbook content that integrates audio, video, animation, assessment banks, and other content with text to create what MacInnis calls "an interactive digital experience."

Even if Google decides to enter the e-textbook market, Cengage Learning's Sullivan said, readers will still need alternatives.

"People read and consume information in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons," he explained. "People doing research, which is the market we serve, are not looking to read immersively and consume 350 pages of every book they need to touch. They want to skim that material, and that's the model we offer. I think there's still plenty of room for different channels to get that information into people's hands. And I think we'll see new channels emerging as we learn more about how to deliver digital content."

Also Worth Reading:

The Device versus the Book
When it comes to meeting the demands of academic reading, today's e-readers are not yet ready to replace the textbook.

The Future of Content is an Open Book
Three open source veterans discuss the implications for open content in higher education.

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