Good Morning, Amazon…

First it was the cola wars.  Now, it’s the e-book wars.

At this past weekend’s book industry trade show, BookExpo America, Google announced that it will begin selling digital book content in the near future.  According to this article in today’s New York Times, the search engine giant has the backing of major players in the publishing field.

The move should come as a wake-up call for Amazon.com, which, since the introduction of Kindle in late 2007, has dominated the retail e-book market. Many questions remain, however, about whether Google’s latest foray into the book world ultimately will pan out.

Why it Will Work
First, there’s Google, whose power, prevalence, and brand recognition shouldn’t be underestimated.  But the success of its latest e-book initiative will stem from more than just the company’s shear Google-ness.  It will result from its growing recognition of itself as not merely a search engine company but indeed as a platform for online businesses.  This is, incidentally, exactly what Amazon.com has been doing of late — refashioning itself, a la Google, from a retailer to a business incubator; and in this respect it’s playing catch-up to Google.

Second, there’s the Kindle factor.  Google’s plan is to release digital editions of books which, though secure (read: DRM), will not be native to any particular e-reading device.  This is good news for those of us who’ve been less impressed with Kindle than we we ought to be; this is especially so where images are concerned.  Plus, it’s great news for readers who, in a time of economic downturn, are discomfited by the prospect of shelling out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of accessing and reading digital content via Kindle.

Third, did I mention Google?  Besides the technology, one of the major problems that has beset e-books thus far has been distribution.  Amazon has successfully addressed the issue by providing readers with a reliable, centralized hub from which to download e-titles.  There aren’t many companies out there who could compete with Amazon along these lines, but Google is surely one of them.  It’s already become a nodal point for people to access e-book content via Book Search and Google Library.  Becoming a nodal point for distribution of e-content shouldn’t take a great deal more than a hop, skip, and a jump.

Why it Won’t Work
Book publishers are greedy and do not understand how to sell their products in and to a digital world.  As the New York Times today reported, Google intends to allow its partner publishers to set their own e-book prices.  If recent history tells us anything, it tells us that the publishers likely will charge something close to print-on-paper prices for content whose material support has already in essence been outsourced to consumers (e.g., in the form of computers, netbooks, and other mobile e-readers). This is unacceptable and will only hinder e-book adoption.

Relatedly, there’s the Amazon factor.  The company has insisted that, where possible, Kindle e-book titles should be kept low.  Most bestsellers cost around $9.99, and although there are many Kindle books that cost more, Amazon should be commended for pressuring publishers to keep their e-book prices down.  If Amazon can continue to do so, purchasing a Kindle with the prospect of having access to cheaper e-book content won’t seem as off-putting as having to buy e-titles from Google at or near ridiculous print-on-paper prices.

Finally, there’s the question of form.  Will Google’s e-book content largely reproduce what would otherwise be available on paper?  If so, then Google e-books won’t have as much uptake as they otherwise could — that is, if they broke with what Gary Hall calls a “papercentric” model of electronic content.  Indeed, if the publishers want to charge near-paper prices for the e-books they sell/distribute via Google, then readers will expect additional types of features to make up for what is, essentially, lost value.

Bottom Line
Only time will tell what will become of Google’s latest venuture into e-books.  I see a great many downsides that would really spell disaster for an anxious contingent of publishers who have convinced themselves, as they do about every eight years or so, that e-books will “save” their industry.  More optimistically, it is my hope that Google will spur Amazon.com to move more quickly on developing cheaper, better Kindles and related e-reading systems that are even more user-friendly.

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