Bookseller Beware: Google Snuggles Up to Independent Bookshops to Sell E-Books

Last Updated Jun 30, 2010 6:00 PM EDT

independent booksellers are naiveLook out Amazon (AMZN), Barnes & Noble (BKS), et. al., Google's (GOOG) getting cozy with the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to ink a deal that will make Google Editions (the company's new e-book division) the primary source of digital books on the Web sites of hundreds of independent booksellers around the country.

At first blush, this appears to be a win-win for all: Google, the indie bookshops, the authors, even the buying public. But there are some things to consider.

The Good

Google Editions offers "a new, exciting twist on e-books," claims ABA COO Len Vlahos, however, no one knows all the pertinent details yet. Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships for Google did tell the ABA that its cloud-based e-books will exist on the Google server and consumers can read them from any e-reading device and purchase anywhere there's Web access.

Think cross-platform e-reading without having to worry about toting an extra piece of equipment. Not only does it free digital bookworms from having to buy a Nook or Kindle (if they haven't already), but it's a huge step away from Apple's (APPL) iBookshelf which locks readers into using only the iPad or iPhone to access their e-books.

The (Potentially) Bad

Google is essentially getting into the wholesale business as Google Editions sold on ABA IndieCommerce sites will be handled much like sales made via distributor Ingram. Booksellers will pay a discount off a suggested retail price and will be free to set their own retail price for consumers. For those on the agency model, the publisher sets a fixed retail price and retailers get a 30 percent take.

But the pricing issue hasn't been settled yet. The foot-dragging might just be the pawing of the ground on a new battlefield and we all remember how well that went for Amazon's control over e-book retail prices.

However, let's not forget that Google makes money through Web searches. The company would like very much to continue doing so and by snagging browsers of virtual shelves, it can conceivably continue to generate revenue from user-generated searches for e-books.

There are some who believe that Google is acting like "the man behind the curtain" and manipulating search functions to maximize that revenue. If so, the indie bookseller must then consider how it will play the SEO game, how much time, talent and financial resources it will invest to leverage search engine functionality in its favor and figure out how to deal with e-books that haven't got all their metadata ducks in a row.

The Ugly

As the New York Times report pointed out, Darin Sennett, the director of Web development at Powell's Bookstore in Portland acknowledged that Google would also be a competitor, since it too, would sell books from its Web site. However, Sennett believed that Google would favor its smaller partners. "I doubt they are going to be editorially recommending books and making choices about what people should read, which is what bookstores do."

His statement seems almost sweetly naïve as Google prepares to go head-to-head with Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Getting into the bookselling business -- even with e-books-- is a take-no-prisoners proposition as margins decline and shares tumble.

Bottom Line

Google is in business to make money and does so through search. Think it doesn't have the vast resources of Amazon's customer preference data? Think again. As my BNET colleague Erik Sherman notes, "Google owns DoubleClick and AdMob, which probably have way more data than you or I realize." And -- no matter how earnest Google tries to sound to potential partners and the public -- it's not afraid to use it.

Image via Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

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  • Lydia Dishman

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