Rethinking Samples
DoJ: Consumer Hero or Predator Enabler?

Disappointed by Google

Last week Google announced plans to wind down the reseller component of their eBook service. As Google put it, the program "has not gained the traction that we hoped it would", so they're pulling the plug next January. Like any well-focused company, Google is smart to reinvest in successful products and kill ones that aren't working. I don't question Google's decision to end the reseller program but I do question whether they invested enough to give it a chance.

Google seems to have a corporate philosphy of planting a product seed and assuming others will embrace it and help it bloom. That might have worked with a superior search engine but it's not always the best approach in other sectors. Android is a great example.

Carriers and smartphone manufacturers embraced Android as a free alternative to the iPhone. Those carriers and manufacturers have sold a lot of phones but the customer experience isn't always that great. Some of the common frustrations are that Android OS updates are unevenly distributed (if at all) and some apps only run on certain devices. I often complain about Apple's walled garden approach but at least if you have an iPhone you know you'll get the new iOS version on day one and every app in iTunes will run just fine. Tablets have only exacerbated this problem. For example, I recently discovered Next Issue, a new all-you-can-eat e-magazine subscription app, but it's incompatible with both my Android phone and tablet. Very irritating.

I realize the decision to push out a new Android OS is in the hands of the carriers and device manufacturers but I think Google should exert more pressure on them to distribute those updates when they're available. Of course, if you're AT&T or Samsung you'd rather force someone to sign up for a new 2-year contract or buy a new device than just give them the latest OS. Notice how Apple doesn't let that happen in the iPhone world though?

I also think Google should have used some of that mountain of cash they're sitting on to build a better Android app ecosystem. Unlike iOS, Android doesn't have any unique killer apps. All the decent Android apps are simply copies of the iOS ones and most of the better iOS apps aren't even available on Android (e.g., Flipboard, The Elements, etc.) Google may have renamed their Android Market to Google Play but there's still no compelling app to lure customers away from iOS. Most developers will tell you there's no money to be made from selling Android apps; if that trend doesn't change it will definitely affect the long term viability of the Android platform.

Getting back to the Google eBooks reseller program... How much did Google invest in it to ensure success? They basically opened the service to booksellers and assumed it could be a hit. I would argue that the only way the reseller piece could succeed is if the larger Google eBook platform succeeds.

Let me ask you a question: Have you ever bought an ebook from Google? I haven't and I don't know anyone who has. You'd think Google would have become a major ebook player by now since they offer all formats. Well, actually...they offer all formats except for the most popular one. As you can see at the bottom of Google's supported reading devices page, they still don't support the Kindle. Doh!

In Google's defense, the only way they could support the Kindle is by offering DRM-free mobi files. Impossible, right? Even though all of our ebooks at O'Reilly are distributed DRM-free there's no way Google could have gotten other publishers to agree to doing so.

Or could they? Remember that mountain of cash I mentioned before? Wouldn't it have been cool for Google to have approached just one of the big six publishers and said, "Hey, we want to level the playing field so that DRM is no longer a weapon used against you to build an ebook distribution monopoly. Let us distribute your ebooks without DRM for 6 months. We'll use our amazing computing power to measure how much piracy there is of your content before, during, and after the test. If we determine a significant piracy increase on the torrent sites, etc., we'll pay you 10 times what you've earned through our service for that period and we'll immediately shut down the DRM-free distribution." Let's say a 10x payment isn't enough to make the publisher's concerns go away. OK, make it 20x. Or 50x. Google's got the money and could have really proven a point that DRM provides nothing more than a false sense of security.

In reality, I'm not convinced Google even cares about the ebook market. Ebooks were just another item on a product checklist they felt compelled to include so they could compete with Apple. Google eBooks doesn't appear to have any momentum so the reseller program could just be the first sign of a more significant retreat from Google. That's too bad. Google had a chance to do something special with this but, like the Android platform, they've relied too much on others and haven't invested enough of their own resources to make it as successful as it could have been.

Comments

Michael Miller

The problem is that Larry and Sergei never believed in marketing. In fact, they thought it was evil. So they put all these great (and sometimes not so great) products out there and didn't promote them at all. In many cases, users didn't even know they were there. It's an "if we build it, they will come" sort of mentality, but that's very self-centered and naive. (Interesting reading: "I'm Feeling Lucky: Confessions of Google Employee #59," by Douglas Edwards, who used to work in Google's marketing department, what there was of it. He battered his head against the wall every day just to get a few bucks to do basic marketing stuff. This is the problem of a technology-focused company, run by technology guys. No consumer focus whatsoever.

Tom Semple

Google dumping independent booksellers was fairly predictable. Not only weren't be booksellers bringing many customers to Google, but Google did not make it easy for customers to find independent booksellers and support them. AFAICT, the only way was to go to the IB's website and use an inferior browsing/purchase workflow. There is no way to set a bookseller preference for your Google account that says that any ebook purchase from Google Play should generate a commission for that bookseller, nor was there a pool of money from Google Play ebook sales that was divided up among the 'partners'. So in practice it was doomed to fail, since there was little motivation on either side to make it work. Hopefully IBA can put something better together.

Google could certainly offer the millions 'free' public domain books in Kindle format, as a camel's nose under the tent strategy to get paying customers. They could also redesign their web reader so that it is more usable with Kindle's browser (it does work, though is not optimized for mobile browsing). Google's reading app for Android is one of the few that does not work on Kindle Fire (via side-loading); they could fix that also.

I have actually bought a few books from Google, even though Amazon has them for the same price. The 'multi-format' option Google offers is attractive (when available). There are some books which function best as PDF, when you have a large enough screen. And if you use Google's reading apps, PDF and ePub synchronize between devices and you can switch between them seamlessly. Google remains the only retailer other than Amazon that offers a browser reader, and it works in just about any browser (unlike Amazon's).

So the pieces are in place. Google has yet to show they have retailing DNA, however. Why should they promote a small margin business when they have a large margin business (advertising). They lack any sort of customer focus.

It is not clear to me that Amazon would be at all disadvantaged in a DRM-free ebook universe. People choose Amazon because of the superior customer experience and ecosystem, not because they are locked in by DRM. Amazon would follow with their own DRM free offerings, while retaining their other advantages. For example, Amazon has Kindle Personal Document service, and the flow would probably favor Amazon rather than the other way around, since nobody else offers this service and there are not really any 3rd party options (dropbox etc. stores files but does nothing for backing up annotations, syncing etc.).

Joe Wikert

Tom, I see your point about whether a DRM-free world would disrupt Amazon's momentum. If the only thing that changed was the removal of DRM I'd tend to agree. But what if it led to others, such as B&N, also distributing mobi ebooks which could easily be loaded on someone's Kindle? Because of a similar situation in the music world I now buy my songs from more than one vendor, not just Apple. Google is partially there by offering all formats *except* for mobi/Kindle.

Kenneth Shear

Well, Google certainly gets beaten up more than any other player in the ebook world, that's for sure. They didn't pick up ebooks as an afterthought to compete with Itunes. If you remember, Google was the company that digitized most of the books in the world, making information about books and in books much more easily available, and for their effort got tarred as a potential monopolist or enemy of authors or whatever. (Microsoft made a run at doing a competing digitization project and when it didn't meet their financial criteria, gave up competing and joined the chorus of those attacking Google.) Then, having worked out a reasonable compromise that might offer a way out of the insane situation where copyright is used to keep books out of print (including works by some of the world's greatest authors), Google again got beaten up on by academics, business rivals, and amazingly, even some author groups, and the settlement was upended. So Google has indeed had difficulties getting much traction in the book business.

The reseller program had a great deal of appeal to those of us who are saddened by the disappearance of most indie bookstores, but what real chance did it have to succeed? There really isn't any reason to go to a bookseller for a book that's available easily online to download to your reader. What does the bookstore actually offer in the way of customer benefit, except the feeling that as a customer you're supporting a bookstore? If indie bookstores could answer that question, they might be able to build some ebook business, but so far, unfortunately, no one has made reselling ebooks attractive to customers except Amazon and possibly B&N by offering nice reading platforms integrated with effective online retail programs.

Yes, Google could offer mobi copies of books; my company, Booktrope, offers ours DRM free for the same reasons O'Reilly does -- it's good for business if you're a publisher. But, the Big 6 don't seem to see it that way, and while Google is a big company, I cannot see how it sells enough ebooks to make a case that would attract the Big 6, which seem fixated on DRM despite the persuasive evidence O'Reilly and others have put forth. Also, how are non-Amazon mobis going to get onto a Kindle device, except as user documents? So Amazon, which does a great job with marketing and selling Kindle content, is going to sell most of it, no matter who else offer mobis. (It's the same with Nooks and Epubs by the way; I doubt many people go out and buy and epub from someone other than B&N and load them on their Nooks.) Amazon especially has an very sophisticated and innovative platform for ebook sales (most recently, KDP Select) which is the reason they dominate the market and they'll continue to dominate until someone becomes as innovative and effective (unlikely soon).

Google is one company that could give Amazon some competition in the innovation department, but as you note they're up against some the conservatism of the Big 6 when it comes to content. The things that Google has tried that might be really effective have been torpedoed with the litigation settlement. Apple could give Amazon some competition in both innovation and marketing but ebooks clearly seem to be a back-burner issue for them, as reflected in their very modest sales in a market that you'd think Apple could gobble up share in. But you really cannot fault Google or Apple for not putting more attention into this area, when the dominant players in the book business are backward looking, and the legalities are so twisted that copyright can be used by publishers to keep books out of print and to prevent innovative approaches to selling books like the famous settlement that wasn't.

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