What Is Google Editions?

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Someday soon—later this summer perhaps—there will be a major new development in the evolution of e-books: the launch of Google Editions. The initial success of Amazon's Kindle, Apple's iPad, and the e-book runners-up like Barnes & Noble's Nook and the Sony Reader has established that consumers are reading books on screens in ever-greater numbers and with considerable satisfaction. While the revenues are still a relatively small part of the overall book market—somewhat less than 10 percent—the figure is growing very fast. The prediction that e-books will be 20 to 25 percent of the total in the next ten years now seems reasonable.

So what does Google Editions add to the mix? The answer, based on conversations with Google representatives and bookseller—particularly among the independent stores—is that Google will be adding millions of digital titles for sale on any device with Internet access: smart phones, tablets, netbooks, desktops, and every digital reading device except Kindle, which for now at least continues to operate on a closed proprietary system. But Google and Amazon are continuing discussions, so that may yet change.

In preparation for its rollout, Google says that through its "Partnership Program" it has made deals with 35,000 publishers and scanned millions of titles. For now, if you go to Google Books, you can preview up to 20 percent of the title you select (go ahead and try it with a best-seller like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and then choose from available options for purchase of the printed book. Assuming the program works as planned, Google Editions will put up for sale a vast universe of trade e-books, plus technical and professional titles and out of copyright works (which will be free) for use when, where and how the consumer chooses. The consumer will put the books they buy on Google's cloud (which means its enormous servers) and can access their personal library at will. Suppose you start reading on your iPhone and switch to your tablet or desktop—the book will pick up where you left off.

In effect, Google Editions seems poised to become the world's largest seller of e-books. If you've followed this issue in recent years, it may seem confusing that Google will be selling books while still in litigation with the Association of American Publishers and the Author's Guild over the right to display the texts of millions books Google has scanned through its library project. That case applies solely to books obtained from cooperating libraries that made their collections available to Google to, in effect, give away, which is why the publishers objected. The settlement under consideration now in the courts would require Google to pay royalties for books it displays and gives authors the right to opt out of the program if they choose to do so. In any event, the outcome of that case has no bearing on the Google Editions enterprise, according to Google's spokesmen.

Google's pursuit of the Partnership Program has been quietly under way since 2004, and because of nondisclosure agreements with the publishers, has largely escaped public notice. From the outset, the intention has been to establish a digital marketplace, with Google acting as a limitless warehouse and storage system for digital content.

So how much of a challenge is Google's imminent arrival as a bookseller to the rest of the industry? That remains to be seen. Google Editions will be selling direct to consumers, and that could be a significant factor. But it will also serve as, in effect, a wholesaler for any other retailer that wants to sell e-books from its own websites, which can also feature other material about the stores, events for example, or reviews and discussion groups. And that's where the role of the independent booksellers gets interesting. Up until now, while Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, and most recently Borders have been building up their e-book inventories and marketing their digital devices (Kindles and iPads have become standard items for millions of sophisticated readers of digital books, magazines, and newspapers), independent booksellers have largely been on the sidelines, unable or unwilling to develop their own means of joining the digital publishing transformation.

But now the American Booksellers Association, the trade association for the independents, has contracted with Google to be an e-book supplier and infrastructure back office. So far, 225 of the ABA's 1,400 members have signed on to the program, and more surely will over time. Each of these stores will have their own website façade that will feature the full catalog of Google's titles as well as features specific to the community being served. As Len Vlahos, chief operating officer of the ABA explained it to me: "For the first time, e-book buyers will be able to take full advantage of their local independents for the same reasons they always have: trust, knowledge and selection. . . . Now you can buy e-books from someone you love."

So Google Editions will have two major functions: it will be a storefront selling at prices comparable to those at other major digital retailers. But it also will serve smaller booksellers and publishers who have been unable to fashion their own efficient means of e-book delivery. As for how prices will be set, Google has agreed to work with whatever model publishers prefer in the continuing tug-of-war over traditional bookseller discounts and the new "agency" format in which the seller takes a commission. As a wholesaler for the independents, Google's plan is to provide retailers with a single digit share of the revenue generated.

For all its immense size and influence over the Internet, Google's revenues have always been dependent overwhelmingly on the text and display ads sold around search results. Virtually everything else about Google—Gmail for example—is a service, in support of the search function. Google's efforts as a retailer of Android-based phones never gained traction. Google Editions will take the company into a new revenue direction: the sale of goods to consumers and support of retailers. As a business, the scale and success of that undertaking is by no means clear. But whatever happens, the arrival of Google Editions is another very big development in the reinvention of the world of books.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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