Google eBooks: Does it give independent bookstores a fighting chance?

Google eBooks is taking digital books to the next level – and that may be a good thing for small booksellers.

Will Google eBooks help to arm the Davids of the book world – independent brick-and-mortar bookstores like River Lights in Dubuque – against the online Goliath of Amazon?

When big-name retailers move into town, it’s usually bad news for mom and pop shops. The trifecta of retail giants – Walmart, Home Depot, and Amazon – have all displaced thousands of small businesses.

But with Google eBooks’ high-profile entry into the e-book market, some independent booksellers may be breathing a sigh of relief.

That’s because Google eBooks carves out a key role for independent booksellers, who can host and sell Google's eBooks on their websites, allowing them to leap into the e-book game long dominated by Amazon and fast becoming a significant portion of book sales.

“We are quite pleased with this,” says Michael Tucker, president of the American Booksellers Association in Tarrytown, NY. “We think this will be a boon for independent booksellers to offer customers digital format books. We wanted to [join the e-book market], but we had no ability to do that until now.”

Google eBooks is taking digital books to the next level, an e-book 2.0 of sorts. Google’s model allows readers to buy books directly from Google or from online retailers, including independent bookstores. Readers can add their books to an online library connected to their Google account and access it on any device with an internet connection, transforming most any device with a web browser (personal computers, smartphones, tablets, and yes, the Sony Reader and Barnes and Noble Nook) into an e-book reader.

“This partnership with Google is an important chapter in the renaissance we’ve been seeing in independent bookselling,” says Mr. Tucker. “It allows our membership to better compete with corporate retailers on selection, price, and convenience. It levels the playing field.”

Crisp and bright with plenty of white space, Google’s eBooks site features a store where consumers can browse and buy e-books, and a repository for those who wish to do research. It also includes a Google web reader, which users can use to subscribe to, share, and organize “interesting stuff on the web.” Google is offering free apps for both Apple and Android devices to make its program as widely available and accessible as possible.

With this, overnight, Google eBooks has become the largest e-book provider in the world in terms of offerings, reports Publishers Weekly “launching with nearly three million books available for purchase or download, including 'hundreds of thousands of e-books' available for purchase and over two million public domain titles available for free.”

“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.”

About 220 ABA member stores are already selling Google eBooks through the ABA’s IndieCommerce website, and many more are expected to join, says Tucker. A list of participating ABA member stores that have opted in to sell Google eBooks online can be found here.

It’s not yet clear how Google will share eBook revenues with independent sellers. Most book sales involve a 70-30 split, with publishers getting 70 percent of revenues and sellers 30 percent. Google will take a percentage of that 30 percent share, says Tucker, though it’s not yet known how much. “It will be very reasonable,” he says.

Though small booksellers seem pleased with Google eBooks, publishers may not be – largely due to the two million public domain titles available for free.

“It's something the book industry is deeply worried about and consumers can celebrate,” writes the Monitor’s Money Editor Laurent Belsie. “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.”

Regardless of how publishers greet Google eBooks, booksellers are eager to join the e- book fray, in part to compete with the likes of Amazon: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, is perhaps their operating principle.

“We’re not running against tide,” says Tucker. “If we can participate in any way, it’s a plus for us, it’s very good news.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.

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