Monday, June 1, 2009

eBooks on the March: BookExpo America Overshadowed by Electronic Upstarts

BookExpo America is one of the premier U.S. trade events, encompassing more than a few Wal-Marts of display space wherever it sets down. This year's event in New York was no exception, but more than ever there was a pall in the air of its exhibit halls as much of the paper-based world of books began to come grinding to a halt in recessionary times. The other key factor, of course, was the meteoric rise of premium ebooks on Amazon's Kindle device, a blessing for publishers needing quick revenues without inventory commitments but a curse with its draconian revenue cuts and control over unit pricing. Who would have thought, then, that the name of Google would come along to offer the book industry...some hope?

As counterintuitive as it may seem to some, the light is finally going off in more than a few minds in the book publishing industry that Google's neutral stance on delivery platforms and its popularity as a destination for book readers courtesy of its library book scanning project may combine to offer publishers a more sane "plan B" for online publishing than they had originally thought. A recent New York Times article outlines some apparently positive responses from publishing executives to Google's strategic partnerships director Tom Turvey saying "We really mean it" to going live by the end of 2009 with Web-based premium ebook sales on all major PC and mobile devices. One key incentive to teaming up with Google: the promise to give publishers complete say over unit pricing.

The technology making this possible, though, is still a bit shaky. Turvey mentioned that books would be available offline only through Web browser caching capabilities; otherwise, your ebooks will be ready and waiting online for you. This is less optimal than the reader-centric features of Amazon's Kindle reader, but given the increasingly universal presence of Web connectivity, it's probably not a major hindrance for many readers more used to online access. It also underscores yet again the re-emphasis by Google of the importance of the Web browser as the most powerful platform for cross-platform electronic content delivery. "Lock-down" of content is easy enough for ebooks in whatever container a publisher would like in a browser, but more importantly it gets to live in a medium that doesn't require them to negotiate distribution deals with an expanding universe of platform providers with each new twist in their technologies. This is also bound to make more of their cash-strapped book consumers happy.

While Turvey made it sound after a fashion that Google had slipped on ebooks as a product priority, clearly there were a few other product priorities that needed to fall into place. With Google's Android operating system taking off now on both smart phones and netbooks, there is a growing Web counterforce to proprietary technologies that were hemming book publishers in to platforms that would ultimately hinder ebook growth. Google's new Wave messaging and collaboration technologies are likely in time to accelerate Google's ability to build real-time conversations around books, enabling publishers to create richer content to engage readers without having to invest in technologies that would take them away from their core editorial talents.

Although these seem to be positive trends for Google, no doubt publishers are still feeling their way through a relationship with Google that is only beginning to move past the tension and mistrust that lead up to the recent book scanning settlement covering orphaned works. It's also likely that Google will not find itself the only "plan B" that publishers investigate as they decide to expand their partnership options beyond Amazon. But when one thinks back a few short years ago when the book industry was trying to partner with Yahoo and Microsoft as alternatives to Google's book scanning efforts, it appears that book publishers, willingly or not, are ready to pursue more aggressive marketing strategies that embrace the Web on the Web's own terms.
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