An American Editor

December 8, 2010

The Google Wars: Taking the First Step

The 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.

December 7, 2010

Will You be a Googler?

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.

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