Why Google Ebooks Could Hurt Independent Booksellers Instead of Helping

Last Updated Dec 6, 2010 2:02 PM EST

Maybe Google (GOOG) shouldn't have rushed it. After all, the search engine giant announced its intent to get in the digital bookselling game quite some time ago. Now, in what appears to be a hurry-up offense, Google Editions -- now dubbed simply Google ebooks -- went live today without much fanfare. But it definitely has some bugs and could potentially cannibalize the independent bookseller sales it was supposed to help.

Granted, launching the world's largest selection of books (think 3 million free titles and "hundreds of thousands" of paid e-books) is no small feat. Indeed, Google ebooks' closest competitor in terms of offerings is Barnes & Noble (BKS) with 2 million e-books available for download. But when you have to put up a "Known Issues" page for customers, which includes a caveat about the high volume of complaints (including e-books getting stuck downloading or not appearing at all!), perhaps it might have been wiser to hold off until after the first of the year?

Google was no doubt trying to capture holiday sales for itself as well as its independent bookselling partners such as Powell's. The indie shops had the most to gain from Google's entry into digital books, as they can now offer their customers access to cloud-based e-books that live on the Google server and can be read from any e-reading device (and purchased anywhere there's Web access). It's a move that the American Booksellers Association (ABA) was touting as a measure that would (finally) level the playing field between such heavy e-commerce hitters as Amazon (AMZN) and the independents.

However, the other big selling point of Google ebooks was the ability to tap the massive power of Google search to find good reads. Google support says, "Just enter the title, author, or simply a keyword or phrase related to your interests in the search box. For example, when you search for "knitting" or for a phrase like "exploring the moon" we'll find all the books whose contents match your search terms."

In theory, that's a huge deal, especially because while the e-book revolution was re-shaping the industry, publishers and booksellers occasionally fell asleep at the metadata switch -- that is, at establishing the data that tags digital files with key words for search -- making finding related titles, authors, and categories sometimes impossible.

This has been a huge concern for publishing consultant Laura Dawson, who's been sounding the metadata alarm for months. In a tweet today, Dawson noted that while Google ebooks searches generate a lot of good categories, some recommended books have nothing to do with the original title. "My big question: How is Anastasia Krupnik (which I have read) related to The Girl Who [Kicked the Hornet's Nest]?

If Google is going to rely on search functionality, that metadata better be better than good enough. It needs to be great.

On the plus side, pricing terms are slowly coming to light, though Google is staying mum about the exact details. Publisher's Marketplace took a comprehensive look at Google's pricing strategies and reported that trade terms "vary from publisher to publisher" and that if one has a preference for certain terms they will be taken "for review." (Registration required for access to article.) That's good news because if terms aren't competitive, publishers (especially the legacy five) won't offer their titles for download. It's the virtual equivalent of bookshelves empty of bestsellers.

Meanwhile the ABA is in continued talks about whether to sell Google ebooks through a single site that all member stores could benefit from, or let the stores create their own e-commerce sites. That's a discussion that needs to find resolution soon as well, in order for independent bookshops to benefit from the Google arrangement.

Right now, a brick-and-mortar store is in direct competition with Google itself as the company is acting as both wholesaler and merchant. If a customer starts by browsing within Google ebook's site, they are only a click away from Google Checkout. Registration is required, but once complete, the transaction lines Google's pockets â€"- not the independent bookseller's.

Image via Google ebooks