The wait is finally over. Google Editions, now dubbed Google eBooks, launched yesterday after months (years?) of anticipation, boasting agreements with over 4,000 publishers—offering about 3 million free and for-sale titles—the venture is very likely to give Amazon and the Kindle a run for leadership in the fast-growing, fast changing, e-book market.
Google eBooks launched offering a free Google Books app for iPhone/iPod, iPad and Android operating systems as well as access through web browsers and PDF downloads for Desktops and laptop computers. While the app for the iPhone/iPod was not immediately available at launch—much to the annoyance of this reporter—the app showed up by the early afternoon and the results are impressive, though certainly not flawless.
Google eBooks is offering access to more than 2 million free public domain digital titles and hundreds of thousands of for-pay e-books—the exact figure is hard to pinpoint—giving the service an inventory of e-book content equal or at least potentially equal to Amazon.com’s more than 700,000 e-book titles. In addition, Google eBooks is partnering with independent bookstores and consumers can buy e-books through local stores that have signed on to offer titles through Google eBooks.
Anyone with a gmail account—roughly about 200 million people—has immediate access to buying and downloading books through Google eBooks. Google eBooks is offered as a sub-unit of Google Books, which gives the user a list of e-books in their personal online library (once you’ve purchased a few) across the top of a redesigned Google Books search page. Once a consumer has entered credit card information—in this case I set up my purchasing account using a laptop but you can do it on a handheld—you’re ready for a step into the future of e-book reading in the cloud computing era. Google eBooks provides the consumer with an online library of every book the consumer buys through Google eBooks, accessible at anytime in anyplace on pretty much any device.
This reporter did not have access to an iPad, so instead I loaded the Google Books app onto my iPod Touch through the Mac App store. Downloading was easy and you can use your usual gmail password to activate the app. Once in the account click on the Google Books link, then the Google eBookstore link. Google eBooks supports both the wholesale and agency pricing models and the store offered e-books at wide variety of prices including the much debated $9.99 faux standard price.
After downloading a few sample excerpts and fooling around with the freebies (Google sets each reader up with a couple of free public domain titles, in my case it was Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations), I bought Amiri Baraka’s Home: Social Essays (Akashic) and Patti Smith’s Just Kids, both for $9.99, although I was charged 89 cents tax for Just Kids, a HarperCollins title. Don’t be impatient; while the site alerts you the books are downloading, often there’s a delay of a minute or more before you actually see the books show up in the Google Books app on your device.
But once downloaded, the reading software ain't bad. E-books come with cover art, the table of contents can be reached through the settings panel which descends when you tap the center of the screen and shows controls for font size, searching and returning to the in-app library of your titles. The e-reader has a night setting, which resets the background to black and the type to white; space between lines can be increased as well as style of font (about 6 different kinds) and the text can be set to “scanned”—if you’d like to see the original scanned pages of, say, a 19th century public domain title—as well as the usual “flowing text”. There’s even a 3-D page turn animation if you simply have to have the virtual feel of reading an actual book.
Now, the Google e-reader doesn’t offer a lot of functionality considered basic to e-reading software, most of which are available on Amazon’s Kindle reading software or other readers. Among the functions not available through the Google books reader: no landscape/horizontal reading for small devices (kind of a drag), no book marking (although the software does automatically mark the furthest page read and synchs that page across all your reading devices), no note taking (available on the Kindle) and no dictionary or highlighting. Truth be told the Google reader seems kind of vanilla when compared with the Kindle software and downright primitive compared to something like Apple's iBooks reader.
The Google Books app can also be a bit glitchy if you let the iPod go to sleep—the reader seems to need a few seconds to reconfigure itself, before redisplaying the text. Nevertheless the software works generally well, its got a clean design, works just fine for basic reading and the convenience of buying, storing and reading e-books through the Google eBooks is undeniable.
Pricing seemed broad—I also bought The Autobiography of Mark Twain for $12.99 though Google eBooks—and I compared e-book prices offered through two indie bookstores in the Google eBooks program. Logging on through Word, a Brooklyn indie bookstore, I compared their e-books prices (retailers can set their own prices—either raise the prices to add margin or sell below it). At Word Baraka’s Home was $15 although Smith’s Just Kids was priced the same as Google eBooks at $9.99; the Twain autobiography, however, was priced at $28.00 (it was $23.80 through Portland, Oregon’s Powells Bookstore, another Google eBooks member-store). So, while indie bookstores have a presence on Google e-books, it’s going to be a tough sell if their prices are wildly inflated beyond the basic Google eBook price.
Of course, marketing through the Google eBooks page can’t compare with Amazon and it is a little surprising that Google, the search engine king, can’t provide a better online showplace and search for its e-books. Indeed even navigating the Google eBook page, while not difficult, could be clearer and more intuitive. Nevertheless, we like this first iteration of Google eBooks; its pretty easy to use and it works and we can expect that Google will work to improve the site as well as the e-reader’s functionality. So Look Out Amazon, Google eBooks is finally here and they’re planning to eat your lunch!