The second week of December during the holiday season may not seem like an ideal time for Google to launch its cloud-based e-book alternative to Apple and Amazon, but many independent booksellers like Cathy Langer, head buyer at Tattered Cover in Denver, Colo., were happy to have it. “We haven’t really been in the game until now,” she says.
“It’s put a whole lot of e-books on Indie Commerce sites,” says American Booksellers Association COO Len Vlahos in a bit of an understatement. Google eBooks went live Monday morning with close to three million titles. Readers can purchase directly from the Google Book site or through an independent bookseller by going to IndieBound or an Indie Commerce site that signed a new agreement with ABA. As of Monday at noon, 109 independents had met that criterion, and some booksellers without ABA sites, like Powells.com, made arrangements directly with Google to launch simultaneously with Google eBooks.
“Google is acting as an aggregator or wholesaler,” explains Vlahos. “Our arrangement is about the functionality and database.” As part of that arrangement booksellers can set their own prices for books from non-agency model publishers. However, until Tuesday’s ABA webinar, few knew how to do that. Google can also set its own prices for consumers. For example, on the e-book for The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, which has a digital list price of $15, it chose to match Amazon’s Kindle price of $6.17.
As for promotion, ABA can’t afford the TV spots or national magazine advertising that Amazon has. “The thrust is grassroots,” says Vlahos. “It’s the strength of the stores in their community.” That’s not to say that ABA hasn’t tried to provide as much backup as possible. On the password-protected IndieCommerce.com site, booksellers can discuss Google eBooks and get files for creating posters and Web information about the new arrangement. IndieCommerce is a product of BSI, ABA’s wholly owned for-profit subsidiary.
One complication that booksellers have had to work around is Google’s insistence that the date for the launch be embargoed, even from them. In addition, booksellers who signed the new Indie Commerce agreement didn’t know the terms until Monday morning. The bookstores that signed may still opt out, even though they are currently offering Google eBooks.
“I’m still digesting and determining whether it’s something we will offer,” says Christin Evans, co-owner of the Booksmith in San Francisco. “The Booksmith has always been an early adopter of new technologies. When they offered it to us, I favored the path of being early to launch.” Still, she points out, when the Booksmith has sold e-books in the past, they haven’t been strong sellers. “We will continue to focus on the physical store as the core of our business,” she notes.
Other booksellers have been much more unqualifiedly enthusiastic. For Bill Fehsenfeld, co-owner of Schuler Books & Music with three stores in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area, Google eBooks gives him a chance to offer customers more choices. “I’m very excited about Google eBooks,” he says. Even though he didn’t expect it to come out on Monday morning, his stores were ready. Late last week his wife, store co-owner Cecile Fehsenfeld, worked with the marketing team to develop an e-mail blast, signage, and copy for the schulerbooks.com Web site. “A lot of people are opening the blast and clicking through,” says Fehsenfeld, who received his first Google eBook customer order early yesterday afternoon.
Although Geoff Jennings, corporate counsel of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, Kan., has nothing but good things to say about how Google eBooks works, which he describes as looking a lot like a very well-made car under the hood, he notes that “there’s only so much one outlet can do.” On the other hand, he stands by his prediction in the New York Times that: “This is the season of the gadget. This season’s gadget is the e-reader.” And if his customers with new e-readers want to shop at Rainy Day Books, now they can.
“Obviously during the next several weeks we are going to be tweaking around the edges,” says Vlahos, who is pleased that Google eBooks will be ready in time for those people opening their iPad on Christmas morning. To service them better, ABA is looking into creating a free e-reader app. The app is just at the beginning stages.