New York: Internet firm Google Inc. appears to be throwing down the gauntlet in the e-book market.
In discussions with book publishers at the annual BookExpo convention in New York over the weekend, Google signalled its intent to introduce a programme by the year’s end through which publishers could sell digital versions of their newest books direct to consumers through Google. The move would pit Google against Amazon.com, which is seeking to control the e-book market with the versions it sells for its Kindle electronic reading device.
As such, it is likely to be welcomed by publishers who have expressed concerns about Amazon’s aggressive pricing strategy for e-books. Amazon offers Kindle editions of most new best-sellers for $9.99 (around Rs470), a price far lower than the typical $26 at which publishers sell new hardcovers. In early discussions, Google has said it would allow publishers to set consumer prices.
Digital war: Amazon.com’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, unveils the Kindle DX, a large-screen version of its popular Kindle electronic reader on 6 May. Google’s move would pit it against Amazon’s e-book market. Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
“Clearly, any major company coming into the e-book space, providing that we are happy with the pricing structure, the selling price and the security of the technology, will be a welcome addition,” said David Young, chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes blockbuster authors such as James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer and Nicholas Sparks.
Google’s e-book retail programme would be separate from the company’s settlement with authors and publishers over its book-scanning project, under which Google has scanned at least seven million volumes from several university libraries. A majority of those books are out of print.
The settlement, which is the focus of an inquiry about the antitrust implications and is also subject to court review, also provides for a way for Google to sell digital access to the scanned volumes.
Under the new programme, publishers voluntarily give Google digital files of new and other in-print books. Already on Google, users can search up to about 20% of the content of those books and then, if they want to buy them, can link from Google to online retailers such as Amazon.com, the website of Barnes and Noble, and Powells.com, and buy either paper or electronic versions of the books. But Google is proposing to allow users to buy those digital editions direct from Google.
Although Google has discussed such plans with publishers before, it has now committed the company to going live with the project by the end of the year.
In a presentation at BookExpo, Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, added the phrase: “This time we mean it.”
Although Google generates a majority of its revenue from advertisement sales on its search pages, it has previously charged for content. Three years ago, it opened a Google video store, and sold digital recordings of NBA basketball games as well as episodes of television shows such as “CSI” and “The Brady Bunch”. This year, Google said it might eventually charge for premium content on video website YouTube.
Turvey said that with books, Google planned to sell readers online access to digital versions of various titles. When offline, Turvey said, readers would still be able to access their electronic books in cached versions on their browsers.
Publishers briefed on the plans at BookExpo said they were not sure yet how the technology would work, but were cautiously optimistic about the new programme.
Turvey said Google’s programme would allow consumers to read books on any device with Internet access, including mobile phones, rather than being limited to devices such as the Amazon Kindle that are intended for reading books or newspapers. “We don’t believe that having a silo or a proprietary system is the way that e-books will go,” he said.
He said that Google would allow publishers to set retail prices. Amazon currently lets publishers set wholesale prices and then sets its own prices for consumers. In selling e-books at $9.99, Amazon effectively takes a loss on each sale because publishers generally charge booksellers about half the list price of a hardcover—typically, $13-14.
Turvey said that Google would probably allow publishers to charge consumers the same price for digital editions as they do for new hardcover versions. However, he said, Google would reserve the right to adjust prices that it deemed “exorbitant”.
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