images.jpegThe first salvo in the Google Wars occurred with Google’s opening of its long-awaited, but greatly disappointing Google Books. In yesterday’s post, Will You be a Googler?, I suggested how things might be, a Christmas of the Future so to speak. But if Google plans to be a real presence in the digital book world with something more than poorly scanned public domain books, it needs to put on its battle gear and get moving toward the front lines now. What follows is one suggestion for first battle orders.

What is it that Google has that no other competitor to Amazon (i.e., no other pbook or ebook competitor) has? Well, there are several things, but most important are the name Google, which is both a noun and a verb and thus ubiquitous in the online world, and the financial resources to do battle on equal terms. The former we need do nothing about; the latter we need to spend.

Let’s move beyond the basics that Google needs to address — the poorly designed Google Books website. That is easily cured; Google can hire any computer-literate high schooler and get a better design. What is not so easily cured is Google’s lack of reputation as the place to go for books. And that is the area of greatest need.

In one online discussion, someone asked whether the Kindle has become the kleenex of ereading devices; kleenex in the sense of a generic name for all devices. I know that when people see me reading on my Sony, the first question asked is, “Is that a Kindle?” How valuable to Amazon is that association of Amazon-Kindle-ebooks?

So step one for Google is to adopt a hardware device as a Google device and for that I nominate the Sony PRS-950. A partnership between Google and Sony is the way to go because the Sony gives more reading real estate and superior ergonomics and build quality when compared to the Kindle. But simply adopting the 950 is not enough.

As part of the adoption process several things need to happen, the most important being these:

Sony needs to rewrite the firmware so as to open up the Internet capabilities of the 950 to more than just the Sony ebookstore
Google needs to create a modified version of its Chrome browser to work on the 950
Google needs to underwrite part of the cost of the Sony 950 so that it can be sold competitively priced to the Kindle
Google needs to arrange for the Sony 950 to be usable anywhere in the world
Given a choice between a Sony 950 and a Kindle 3G, with easy-to-use ebookstores with similar content available, I think people would choose the Google-Sony 950 more frequently than the Kindle.

Yet that is only the start. Google needs to attack Amazon where it is most vulnerable, which is in book selection. Right now it is clear that the difference between the Amazon and Google (and Barnes & Noble and Kobo) ebookstores is the difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Yes, there may be scattered titles that one has and the others do not, but for the most part, each has an identical inventory available. (Pricing is a different matter and not one that needs to be addressed at this point.)

But Google can give Amazon a run for its money in exclusives — and it should. Remember when Amazon announced that certain forthcoming books from popular authors would be available exclusively at Amazon for 6 months to 1 year? We haven’t heard a lot about that recently but it is time to stoke the exclusivity war with Google plunging in. And Google offers something that Amazon doesn’t and can’t — search engine ranking. Entry in Google Books can be made to appear in the number 1 position on a search results page.

If I were Google, I would approach the top 25 authors in multiple categories — romance, fantasy, science fiction, historical novels, etc. — and offer an exclusive Google Books deal (I can think of lots of terms that would be appealing to authors to induce them to sign on, but we can save that discussion for another day).

I would also offer an inducement to readers to buy the Google-Sony 950. Buy one and pick 10 ebooks from our vast catalog of ebooks. If the agency folk scream about it, reverse the order: Buy 10 ebooks and get the reader with our compliments.

One more thing I would do in the this initial battle, and that is create exclusive ebook packages. The packages could be special omnibus editions of a single author’s work or it could be a themed collection that combines a major author’s work with similar type works from indie authors. I actually prefer the latter because it would expose readers to more authors. But imagine being able to buy a Dean Koontz backlist title along with 6 similar-genre titles written buy indie authors for the price of the Dean Koontz title. Granted this would require a lot of cooperation among authors but such a scenario could be a win-win for the indie authors, Dean Koontz, and Google, as well as for consumers.

Special omnibus editions would fit within the Agency 5′s hopes to sustain a viable competitor to Amazon. There is no reason, for example, why the first 3 novels written by Tom Clancy, for example, couldn’t be packaged into a single, special, Google Omnibus where readers could buy 3 for the price of 1 or 2. It is in the interests of publishers to help create a real competitor to Amazon, especially now that they should be recognizing that Apple isn’t the answer and is unlikely to ever be the solution as opposed to a future problem.

At least this would be a start down the competitive pathway. Will Google do anything more than what it has done (i.e., announce and open Google Books) remains to be seen, but this is the one hope right now of creating competition in the book world.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog


  1. If Google really wanted an ereader it could manufacture one itself. And what’s with all the wartalk? Such a ‘war’ would just cause collateral damage amongst both readers and writers.

    It is Google as wholesaler that is the real interesting move to me. Sometimes it seems to be forgotten that the vast majority of ebook readers are still in the future. They will come by migrating from buying pbooks, many in their favourite bookstores at present.

    Google is creating an opportunity for such readers to naturally progress via their wholesale partners. Of course many of the Indie bookstores won’t see it that way but that is what is likely to happen to their clients. Other wholesalers such as Ingrams are under threat for the logic of this move is for Google to supply ebooks to internet only bookstores as well.

  2. Won’t agency pricing effectively kill any attempt at such competition though? Google could do all the things you suggest, and they still would have a hard time competing with Amazon’s brand recognition and ebook infrastructure, since they can’t make up for it by competing on price and availability for instance.

  3. @Frode — I think that even with agency pricing Google can not only compete but end up on top because as powerful as the Amazon brand is, the Google brand is even more potent. Here’s how I think Google can do it: Want to buy Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow? Type Washington A Life in Google and see the number 1 entry is the book at Google Books. Number 2 might be Amazon, but number 1 is Google. People will feel as comfortable buying via Google as they do buying via Amazon.

    And even though many people think it is a bad idea for Google to buy B&N and Borders because of lack of experience with brick-and-mortar stores, I think it would be a smart move on two fronts: First, there are a lot of people who are members of Borders and B&N clubs. Targeting e-mails and specials to those people would help. Second, a lot of those people are people who don’t want to buy from Amazon for a lot of reasons, thus a built-in audience. Third, as for the brick-and-mortar stores, Google could spin them off and turn management over to a successful indie like Powell’s or Tattered Cover and give the indies an opportunity to revitalize the storefronts. Or it could just close them and cut a deal with the indie stores to fill the gap. Or it could use the stores as feeders into Google Books. Visit the store, find a book. You can either buy it physically there or instantly via Google Books and get a discount. Lots of opportunites for those with imagination.

    @gous — Google isn’t a hardware manufacturer and shouldn’t be one. What it should do is leave that to the specialists like Sony and cut a deal. Sony is not a particularly good ebooktailer, not bad but not great, and Google could put its effort into shining in the etail end of the bargain. The Google-Sony combination could really put a dent into Amazon. No matter how you cut it, the Kindle is not near as good a device as the Sony 950 except that the Kindle beats the Sony in price and in the ebookstore to which the device is tethered.

  4. I can’t see it being a smart thing for any top author to limit themselves to 1) a store that does not sell to the top device is this category (like it or not, this is the Kindle, with most indie authors reporting the bulk of their sales on that platform and 2) limiting themselves to a store which only sells to Americans. It would just be foolish. I can’t think of any terms Google could offer to make up for these things.

  5. @Gous

    -Sometimes it seems to be forgotten that the vast majority of ebook readers are still in the future. They will come by migrating from buying pbooks, many in their favourite bookstores at present.-

    You hit it on the head here. The e-book market shares of all e-booksellers almost identically mirrors the market share of physical books. Brand loyalty is simply transferring from one medium to another.

    What will be interesting to see here is how Google books compete against online p-book sales. I think a lot of Amazon’s sales come from people who just google the name of a book and go with the top link. Will those people start just using the books search feature now?

  6. Your comments about selection are dead on. Amazon has stalled in getting EXISTING books into the Kindle store. There are many, many older books I’d love to have in ehook format… But they’re simply not available.

    As you say, Amazon has the mind share. But they need to make a determined effort to get all of the publishers on board, and to start expanding their back catalog.

  7. @Adin

    Well Sony readers can already access (most) Google ebooks so a formal alliance will not change much. It is not at all unlikely that the Sony ebookstore will bleed customers to Google but such bleeding is nothing new. Unfortunately Sony seems wedded to its ebookstore as their failure to support B&N DRM would suggest. One has to ask if Sony’s heart is really in the ereader business though.

    Nor would Google tether itself to one device not of its own making. It did not with Android based cellphones nor will it do it here.

  8. It seems that books from Google eBookstore can be read on just about any device except the Kindle devices. That includes NOOK and NOOKcolor which are sold through an already established bookseller (Barnes & Noble). There is no reason for Google to retract from their strategy and associate themselves with a “Google” hardware device.

    Soon the hardware devices won’t matter to booksellers (e.g. Kindle for Amazon) and Amazon will have to compete with Google on other bases.

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