Yesterday, Google Books opened for U.S. residents. This is the long-awaited bookstore, although after a browse of it, I’m not sure why. The question that remains to be seen is whether this bookstore will be very competitive and whether it will challenge Amazon.
Also in yesterday’s news was the rumor/announcement that Borders, in conjunction with the private equity group that currently is keeping Borders afloat, plan to make a bid for Barnes & Noble. This will be interesting.
But the two bits of news really belong together.
Google Books has one thing going for it: it will be a way for independent bookstores to provide an ebook service to their customers. Powell’s in Portland, OR, has already indicated it will be partnering with Google Books. But a look at the Google bookstore doesn’t leave me chomping at the bit to buy books from it, whether print or ebooks.
Try finding customer service. I had difficulty finding it and, more importantly, had difficulty determining whether Google Books is a cloud-only service or a combined cloud-download service. The former I would never buy from (unless I absolutely had no choice) whereas the latter at least gives you the option of maintaining a copy of your purchase on your desktop. But what happens if I purchase a book only to discover after purchasing it that it is not downloadable, something that appears very easy to do at Google Books? Trying to get your money back and have the book removed from your cloud-based library looks to be a herculean task, in contrast to the ease of access to customer service at Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and Sony, to name a few competitors.
There are lots of problems with Google Books. One would think that a company as resource-rich as Google would hire better specialty designers, but I guess even money doesn’t cure the hit-or-miss school of design.
Yet, I suspect that in the not too distant future most of us will become Googlers, that is, buyers of books via Google Books, unless we become Amazoners. I think that the foretold shakeout of the ebook retail industry has just begun. Here’s why and what I would do —
I’d like to be sitting on the cash — note it is cash — that Google is because I would now take the steps necessary to thwart Amazon and Apple’s ebook business. First thing I’d do is buy B&N. Google can do it for cash; Borders can’t compete, Jobs doesn’t believe in reading and so won’t compete, and Amazon could never buy B&N and get past antitrust concerns. And no matter what Leonard Riggio thinks, a serious bid for B&N by Google would be insurmountable by Riggio. It isn’t exactly like he has been such a great leader in recent years that private equity would simply line up and beg him to lead a takeover.
Second, I would put Borders out of its misery. Buy it and merge it into Google Books. The only real value to Borders is its customer list.
Third, I would approach Sony and offer a deal for its ebookstore. I doubt Sony could resist any reasonable offer, especially if Google made a deal to scrap the nook device and help Sony make its devices more price competitive. The reality is that the Sony devices are probably the best dedicated reader devices available except that they cost so much more than the Kindle, nook, and Kobo (and other third-party devices), they can’t get the kind of traction in market share they deserve. Combine Google financial power with Sony technology and suddenly you would see a truly competitive ebook market.
Finally, comes Kobo. The Kobo device isn’t something I would write home about; it’s OK but not a class leader. But the Kobo ebookstore is a different story. If the ebook race were to be decided simply on the quality of the ebookstore and customer service, the race would be between Amazon and Kobo, none of the other major players would even be a blip on the horizon. Kobo is aggressive and provides customer service at the vaunted Amazon level. So what I would do is see if I couldn’t partner with Kobo, perhaps pay a fee to bury the brand and merge it into the Google Books brand but have the Kobo personnel essentially run Google Books.
Ultimately, I think the only ebook bookstore survivors of the major brands will be Amazon, Google, and Kobo. Sony’s ebookstore isn’t bad, but Sony hasn’t got a clue how to promote either its reading devices or its ebookstore. B&N and Borders are mismanaged; B&N does do some great promoting but drops the ball after the promoting. Borders doesn’t seem to do anything right. Apple is really a nonentity as regards ebooks. It’s hard to become a real competitor when the only person who matters doesn’t believe in reading.
Google Books is the unknown in the lion’s den. Google certainly has the fiscal resources to take on Amazon, which is the key player today, but whether it has the vision and the stamina to do so remains to be seen. If we begin to see improvements in the Google bookstore, especially in customer service options, and see Google make moves to create a true competitor to Amazon, then many of us may well become Googlers. Until then, I think Google Books will be last in the race.