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Google enters e-book market, with a few hiccups

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Kindle, meet the 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.

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," the company's director of engineering, James Crawford, said in a telephone 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 and for devices that run Google's Android operating system. You can also read Google e-book downloads on devices that support Adobe's "digital rights management" (DRM) software - a requirement that Amazon's Kindle devices don't meet but that 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. 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 blog 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.

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.

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's, will 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 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 - lasted about a year and a half before Google shuttered it.

After trying out Google eBooks in two Web browsers, three mobile devices (an iPad 3G, an iPhone 4 and a Samsung Galaxy Tab) and one e-book reader (Barnes & Noble's NookColor), I can only think this store could use another run through the typewriter.

Browsing and searching through Google's e-book store is no problem, and it seems to stock the same new titles at the same prices as elsewhere. But its pricing and selection didn't beat the Kindle store's in a search for three older, Washington-related books.

Christopher Buckley's "Thank You for Smoking" costs $9.99 from Google but $8.69 on Amazon. My friend Robert Schlesinger's "White House Ghosts" goes for $13.99, the same as Amazon's Kindle price - and $1.30 more than what Amazon charges for a hardcover copy. Zachary Schrag's excellent history of the Washington Metro, "The Great Society Subway," is overpriced for the Kindle at $16.50, but Google asks $17.60 for a version, optimistically labeled "Better for larger screens," that offers only scanned-in images of pages.

When I switched to Google's iOS and Android apps, I was puzzled to see that the former offer more features. The Android program offered fewer font choices (four, compared with seven) than the iPad and iPhone apps and - of all the things for Google to leave out - lacked the iOS release's search function.

Finally, I downloaded PDF and ePub-format copies of "Alice in Wonderland," one of the three public-domain titles that every Google Books buyer gets for free, to inspect on a Barnes & Noble NookColor. The PDF was unreadable - I couldn't even flip from page to page, and its illustrations were replaced by empty red squares - but the ePub looked fine, aside from too-large images.

Had I bought a title off Google to move to the B&N device, I would have been subjected to a fussy file-transfer procedure, required by Google's Adobe-supplied DRM, that involves installing a copy of Adobe Digital Editions, opening the book in that free program, then employing that program to sideload the book on the Nook.

No, thanks. If I wanted to be reminded about why users justifiably resent DRM, I'd rather read a book about the record labels' failed adoption of it. And, given the issues I see in Google eBooks, I might be happier getting that book at a library.


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