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The New Economy

Google e-books: Are book prices headed down? To zero?

Google launched its e-books marketplace Monday, giving prominence to the more than 2 million titles it offers for free.

By / December 6, 2010

Library staffs and the University of California, Santa Clara, truck a small portion of the thousands of books the universities will send to Google to be scanned for the Google book search engine in this 2008 file photo. The company launched its ebook site Monday, featuring more than 2 million titles that are free.

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Google's new e-bookstore opened Monday with a compelling vision of the future of reading.

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In this new future, your library becomes electronic and virtually unlimited. The books you're reading move seamlessly from, say, your computer to your e-reader to your smartphone.

And, oh, what you pay for many of those books will probably be coming down.

That last point isn't mentioned in any company releases, but it's something the book industry is deeply worried about and consumers can celebrate.

Amazon.com got the ball rolling by selling $10 e-books – at a loss – for its popular Kindle e-reader. Now, the new Google site matches Amazon on price and offers an added perk: free books, more than 2 million of them, available for download from its site.

"We set out to make the information stored in the world’s books accessible and useful online," Abraham Murray, product manager of Google Books in an official blog post. "Since then, we’ve digitized more than 15 million books from more than 35,000 publishers, more than 40 libraries, and more than 100 countries in more than 400 languages."

The ability to download free books isn't new, but juxtaposed with Google's hundreds of thousands of e-books now for sale, it brings home the point that the price pressures on books point mostly downward.

For example: The e-bookstore offers a digital download of Charles Dickens's "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations" for $7.99. But prominently displayed below is a digital copy of "A Tale of Two Cities" for free.

Now, why would you pay any money to download a classic when you can get it for free?

That's bad news for publishers, because free e-books will make it less likely that publishers can continue to make money by selling classics.

Even more damaging, the prominence of the free book section embeds a price point in the book-buyer's mind – zero dollars – that publishers really, really don't want associated with their product.

They were already angry with Amazon for the $10 price point. With the arrival of competitors like Apple, through its iPad, and Google, publishers had hoped to play e-book retailers against each other and negotiate a higher price for their content.

That appears to have worked in the short term. Google and Amazon are selling e-books for $11.99 (Emma Donoghue's novel "Room"), $12.99 (Stephen King's "Full dark, no stars"), and even $19.99 (Ken Follett's "Fall of Giants").

New, highly sought-after books will probably continue to command a premium price. But the pricing power for many older titles out there won't be as strong, especially if readers move away from physical books to digital code and publishers become increasingly dependent on sales by the e-book outlets.

"In the long term Apple and Google will not necessarily be better partners than Amazon," concluded the New Yorker's Ken Auletta in an April article. "No matter where consumers buy books, their belief that electronic media should cost less – that something you can’t hold simply isn’t worth as much money – will exert a powerful force."

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