Faster Forward: Google launches e-book store

By Rob Pegoraro
Monday, December 6, 2010; 10:19 AM

Kindle, meet competition: Google just opened an electronic-book store that offers titles in formats compatible with Web browsers, Apple and Android mobile devices and most other e-book readers--but not Amazon's line of readers.

Google eBooks (which the company referred to as Google Editions during its development) will stock more than 3 million books. Most will be free, public-domain titles, but that inventory will include "hundreds of thousands of books you can pay money for," said director of engineering James Crawford in a phone interview Friday.

You'll be able to browse, buy and read titles through a standard Web browser at books.google.com/ebooks or through new software for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch (as seen in the screengrab here) and for devices running Google's Android operating system. You can also read Google e-book downloads on devices supporting Adobe's "digital rights management" usage-control software--a requirement that Amazon's Kindle devices don't meet but which dozens of less-popular devices, including Sony's Reader series and Barnes & Noble's Nook models, do.

Most large publishers will be able to set their own prices--for example, Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" and George W. Bush's "Decision Points" go for $9.99 each, the same as at Amazon's Kindle Store. The somewhat restrictive agreement I cited in a post last week, which specified maximum e-book pricing relative to print and offered a relatively low share of revenue, applies only to smaller, "non-agency" publishers. But Amanda Edmonds, director of strategic partnerships for Google's e-books store, said most such publishers can also apply existing publishing contracts.

Shoppers can also buy from separate e-book stores running Google's software, not just at Google's own e-books site. For example, Portland, Ore.-based Powell's Books will sell Google eBooks.

Google e-book publishers--about 4,000 at the start--will be able to opt out of DRM on individual titles or on everything they sell, a slightly more liberal approach than that of other large e-book stores. I expect that most mainstream publishers will do the "safe," conservative thing and limit the value of purchases with DRM-enforced restrictions, but I can only hope that some of them will learn from the example of publishers who do fine without DRM.

Allowing reading over the Web--what Crawford called "the philosophy we've taken of buy everywhere read everywhere"--also sets this venture apart. He said Google's Web-based reader application will be able to show a book's original fonts and graphics, but it won't support offline reading at the start. "That's high up our priority list," Crawford said.

Other promised features didn't make the cut for the launch. The company held up support for copy and paste and printing, for example, after too many publishers balked. Highlighting and annotation features won't happen until later. The same goes for text-to-speech capabilities that would allow Google's reader programs to read a book aloud.

Google's reader applications, Web and otherwise, will sync your progress across devices and platforms. Its book format, unlike that of Amazon, will also feature consistent page numbers.

It's important to remember that although this is the seemingly unstoppable Google we're talking about, the Mountain View, Calif., company doesn't actually have that much experience selling directly to consumers. One of its few earlier ventures in that category, an online video store it launched in 2006, only lasted about a year and a half before Google shuttered it--and had to give customers refunds after initially telling them "sorry, once this closes your DRMed purchases won't play."


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