Google Editions is Coming (Yes, Really) But Game-Changing Still a Long Way Off

Last Updated Dec 2, 2010 11:22 AM EST

Just in time for the end of month shopping frenzy, Google (GOOG) is (finally) going to launch its much delayed e-book program, Google Editions. But will the service -- touted as the antidote for readers who preferred not to be shackled to a particular device â€" be the panacea it promises for independent booksellers? I'm still skeptical.

Back in June, I reported that the American Booksellers Association's (ABA) member stores with IndieCommerce Web sites would be able to join the e-bookselling party and peddle Google Editions when the service launched.

It seemed like a good proposition given the sheer size of the enterprise. 400,000 pay and about 2 million free Google Editions would be readable on iPads, Nooks and the like, or online through Google's own web reader. (Kindle capability was not supposed to be available immediately at launch, according to The Bookeller.) And Google was going to stay in line with the agency model of pricing (the 70/30 split with the retailer getting 30 percent of the list price).

However, the pricing question was left open-ended as recently as October, when Abraham Murray, product manager for Google's Books team, told those gathered at the Frankfurt Book Fair, "We will meet the needs of the market, and we are accepting the agency model in the U.S., but we haven't gone after it, and as that plays out we will follow."

Now PC Magazine is reporting that Google's changed the terms to offer publishers only a 52 percent cut which is significantly lower than the agency model. On the plus side, retailers will capture more of the revenue, provided that publishers are willing to go along with the less competitive rates.

Will Google actually hold fast to this development after launch if publishers put the press on? Google Editions Guidelines state it won't allow the price of books to exceed the lowest list price of the print edition; the default will be 80 percent. And we all remember how well it went when Amazon (AMZN) tussled with publishers to control e-book retail prices.

Yet this is a critical issue. If publishers (especially the legacy five) don't like the terms, they can simply refuse to offer their titles as Google Editions. If those titles aren't available, customers are likely to look for them elsewhere, leaving the independent bookseller out of making the sale.

In spite of the pricing issue, many are predicting that Google Editions is going to be the real game changer for publishing. Indeed, the WSJ points out the search engine giant attracts 190 million U.S. users per month, and digital book sales are expected to more than triple to $966 million this year. ABA's IndieCommerce staff just completed a series of upgrades in preparation for the launch and members are executing contracts to participate. Executives at the ABA did not immediately respond to my request for comments.
Publisher's Marketplace summed it up best in a headline: "Yes Virginia, there is a Google e-book service." (subscription required). But until it's actually well underway, it's difficult to see how much it will benefit anyone â€"publisher, bookseller, author, reader â€" except Google.

Image via Google Editions