Using a memorable and somewhat ominous phrase, Oxford University Press’s Evan Schnittman said the book publishing world is facing a “new world order,” or a trio of giant companies—Amazon, Google and Apple—making plans that will forever change the way we find, buy and read books. Schnittman’s comments were made at “The Book on Google: Is the Future of Publishing in the Cloud,” a panel discussion held as part of Publishers Weekly’s Think Future discussion series and sponsored by the Book Industry Study Group.

Held at the Random House offices in midtown Manhattan, the panel was moderated by PW features editor Andrew Albanese, who was quick to issue a general disclaimer about just what the morning’s topic would and would not be. “This panel is not about about the Google Book Settlement,” he said referring to ongoing deliberations of Judge Denny Chin in the case. “That topic is in the hands of a judge.”

Indeed the panel focused on the implications of the Google Book Editions, the much anticipated, much power-pointed and much-delayed venture by Google that is designed to sell and provide access to millions of books online no matter what device a consumer uses to access them. Set to launch in June or July of this year—Google’s Chris Palma guaranteed the program would launch by the summer—Google Editions will have a dramatic effect on digital book market (and the print one was well) offering a vision of a new book publishing marketplace as a part of a “cloud computing platform” or a online marketplace where books can be searched for, bought and stored on the internet and read anywhere, any time, on or off line.

A panel that included Google’s Palma, the literary agent and digital publisher Richard Curtis and Schnittman discussed the options available in this new world for publishers and authors. It’s a world with more than 1.8 billion internet users, of which nearly half use the web to share content and collaborate via social media, web-based e-mails and other online services—“all of this is cloud computing,” said Palma in a presentation that outlined Google’s ambitious plans. Google Editions is a venture that combines Google’s overarching ability to aggregate millions of online consumers with “remote connectivity that allows the ability to create giant economies of scale,” said Palma.

Quoting Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Palma described cloud computing as the next step toward a world “where everyone can create, share, collaborate and find their content in the cloud at any time.” Consumers will be able to use a free Google account—Gmail for instance—to gain access to books through Google Book Search and through partnerships with a wide variety of online and brick and mortar retailers to buy e-books (which will be stored in online libraries) as well as print books. Google Editions will offer access to more than 2 million for-pay and free books, an inventory compiled through its efforts to scan books and through new distribution deals.

The panel outlined a world that now features more than 51 million iPhone/iPods/iPads; 100 million other smartphones; 5 million e-ink devices and more than 30 million netbook computers, said Palma. He pointed to Google’s plans to offer e-books for any device or format including the ability to read e-books through a web-browser—HTML5, a new and secure web standard that will offer a variety of functionality, including the ability to read books, that will take place in a web browser like Google’s Chrome without any plug-ins.

Although Amazon also offers a cloud computing vision of the future through its Kindle publishing platform, unlike Amazon, Palma said, Google Edittions offers an “open platform” to book retailing. Palma said Google Editions will allow consumers to buy books, electronic or otherwise, from any retailer. “When you buy a Kindle you’re saying you’ll only buy books from Amazon, ever.” Nevertheless, Kindle titles are also stored online for their owners and despite being a "proprietary" format, there are versions of the Kindle software that allow kindle titles to be read on the iPhone, iPods, iPads, Blackberries and PCs.

But it was Schnittman’s evocation of a “New World Order”in book publishing that illustrated the magnitude of change as he outlined the strength, weaknesses and opportunities of three companies who have set their sights on transforming not only the mechanics of book publishing and retailing, but the very nature of reading itself.

In Schnittman’s presentation, Google offers “a blend of traditional terms and the agency model” including flexibility (search, find, buy) and opportunities to bundle print and e-books; while its weaknesses include the looming consequences of the Google Book Settlement. Amazon’s strengths are an 85% share of the e-book market and a commitment to the category and to self-publishing—but its weaknesses include its proprietary format and a much more level retailing playing field on e-book prices brought about by the agency model. Apple can boast strengths in hardware design and the device entertaimment market (the iPad is effectively a new way to read) but falters in the number of titles it can offer and its dependence on backlit LCD screens, which continue to be considered a problem for immersive reading by some observers, including Schnittman.

Much as he does on his E-Reads blog, Curtis used his hybrid position as literary agent and as the publisher of E-Reads, his own digital publishing venture, to outline a future that can be seen either as brilliant and new or “a publisher’s worst nightmare,” he said. E-Reads offers about 1,000 titles from Curtis’s client and non-client authors to which he has secured the rights. Royalties are split 50/50 between authors and publishers; overhead is low and E-Reads is essentially a virtual company, “it exists only on the server I keep under my desk,” he said. Everything is digitized, “even payment takes place by wire transfers,” said Curtis. “This vision is troubling to most traditional publishers,” Curtis said, “there’s no there there. There may even be no more need for places specifically designated to buy books—bookstores or libraries—when you can buy or get a book anywhere."

Curtis used the session to float a variety of “new world” cloud computing scenarios that can be seem as either revolutionary or a book publishing dystopia. Bullish on e-books, he is nevertheless unimpressed by the iPad, citing the possibilities of “distraction” on the multimedia device and the clear superiority of paper for “immersive reading.” He pointed to POD publishing (“returnability will continue to make it attractive”) and in response to a question from the audience, outlined a possible future publishing/retailing scenario in which a book publisher strikes a deal with Amazon. In the deal, the online retailer would take pre-orders on a big popular book, then print it using POD, sell the books and deliver them all to purchasers by drop shipping—no offset printing, warehouses and no brick and mortar stores. “The publisher does the editorial work, pays the agent and the author and Amazon does the rest. Its incredibly efficient, there are no returns ad the old publishing world disappears,”

Of course, Curtis left out the likely consequence that his hypothetical publisher would viscerally antagonize every other book vendor on the planet. Palma was quick to respond to Curtis’s future vision, noting “why would a publisher want to work with only one channel? And a droll Schnittman offered his own take, concluding the morning panel by noting , “that could only happen a long way off in a galaxy far far away."