I’ve heard a whole range of responses to the announcement of Google’s answer to the ebook question, from the pessimistic (this won’t change anything), to the hysterical (this development is going to single-handedly save the book industry worldwide!). As with most of the stuff I cover on this blog, the answer is probably somewhere between the two.
To begin with – what the hell is Google Editions? Editions is Google’s response to the current ebook retail solutions. Hardly surprisingly, it is very Google-ish. Instead of a single device that reads books sold through a single store (like both Apple and Amazon), Google Editions will be as open as possible. It will be accessible from launch on any device with access to the web through the login most of us already have with Google. They’ll do this by hosting their ebooks in ‘the cloud’ – a fancy way of saying on the internet, specifically on Google’s vast server space. They’ve already got the content – when they launched Google Books a couple of years ago they got the books from scanning a vast library of out-of-print and out-of-copyright paper books, and have spent the time since cementing relationships with publishers and authors in order to get more recent books (and the permission to use the books they took it upon themselves to scan in). When they launch they’ll likely have a bigger library of ebooks than any other retailer on the web. More importantly than any of that, Google will be opening up their library of ebooks for sale through other retailers, acting as the backend for independent booksellers and other booksellers who, for whatever reason, lack the resources or wherewithal to put their own ebook store together.
In theory, this should mean that those of us who read exclusively digital nowadays will still be able to support our local indie bookstore and continue to read ebooks. It wouldn’t even need to be done through a website. In the most optimistic view, I imagine a world in which I head in to my local bookstore, browse the selection they have there and come across a couple I’d like to read, then proceed to a terminal or the front desk to order them sent to my personal digital library in the cloud to read at my leisure later. That would combine the singular experience of browsing a bookstore (far more enjoyable, in my opinion, than any ebookstore has yet managed to create) and the convenience of ebooks.
So what’s the catch? Well, the cloud solution to ebooks is nice in theory, but it stretches the software licence idea of ebook ownership to a new level for consumers. When you buy an ebook from Amazon, you’re not really buying the file you download, you’re buying a licence to use that file and cannot legally use it in any way contrary to that licence. This is completely different to a physical book, which, after you’ve purchased it, you can do anything you like with – including sell it on to another person or a secondhand bookstore. Google Editions wouldn’t be any different to the existing ebook offerings in that regard, but you wouldn’t even be downloading a file – you’d be accessing that file through the internet. It remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace this difference or not.
Other question marks hang over the Google Editions project as well. If the file can only be accessed from the cloud, what do you do when you’re not connected to the internet? Does that mean you can’t read the book? One presumes this isn’t the case, Google have been experimenting with ‘offline’ apps (such as offline Gmail, Calendar and Docs) for years now, but people still tend to fundamentally think of books as an offline, almost anti-internet experience – and I wonder if that will make a difference to how Google Editions is viewed.
At any rate, Google Editions is a welcome addition to the offerings already out there, and has the potential to do some very interesting stuff to the industry, especially to independent booksellers.