After months of anticipation, Google today launched its long-awaited cloud-based e-book program, Google eBooks. Rebranded from its original moniker, Google Editions, Google eBooks overnight becomes the largest e-book provider in the world, at least in terms of its offerings, launching with nearly three million books available for purchase or download, including “hundreds of thousands of e-books” available for purchase and over two million public domain titles available for free.

The launch includes a redesigned Google Books page, featuring both a store where consumers can find and buy e-books, and a research option for those who wish to search and use the repository. It also includes a Google web reader, and apps for both Apple and Android devices, which are available for free. Google's cloud-based e-books can be accessed and read anywhere, on any device with a modern, HTML5-enabled browser, whether desktop computers, laptops, netbooks, tablets, or via apps for iPhones, iPads, and Android-powered smartphones. Because it is an open platform, Google eBooks will also be accessible on any e-reader that is based on an open platform, like ePub, including, the Sony Reader and the B&N Nook. Announced over two years ago, the program launches just in time for the 2010 holiday season, with roughly 4,000 participating publishers. Although it is currently limited to the U.S., Google will roll out international editions of Google eBooks beginning in early 2011.

Readers can store and access their e-book libraries on cloud-based personal bookshelves accessible through their Google accounts, and can also download DRM-protected ePub or PDF files directly to their computer or other device for use offline. Google officials say its pricing "will be competitive," with other e-book ventures, and will accommodate the agency model if desired. The price for titles from agency publishers will be set by the publishers, and the the price for non-agency publishers will be set by the seller, meaning that Google will set the price for books in the Google eBookstore, and "resellers" will set the price in theirs

As for resellers, the program envisions a key role for independent booksellers, who can host and sell Google's eBooks on their Web sites, a move that makes sense both for Google, which despite its dominant online search presence lacks the retail experience of its competitors, and for indie bookstores, who can now get into the e-book game without having to build and maintain their own expensive platforms. At or shortly after launch, indie stores will begin to roll out their own customizable Google eBook storefronts, including stores participating through a partnership with the American Booksellers Association.

Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships for Google, told PW the alliance with the ABA and independent booksellers was a critical part of Google's e-book vision. “We specifically designed the program so indies could leapfrog into the e-book game without having to invest a lot of upfront costs beyond the time to integrate our platform and make sure its working properly," Turvey said. "This was hugely important for us. The last thing we wanted was to reduce thousands of points of presence on the book retail side to three or four. That's not healthy."

While some booksellers have voiced concern over the search giant's push into books, Michael Tucker, co-founder of San Francisco-based independent bookseller Books Inc., and president of the ABA, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the program puts indies "on a level playing field" with Amazon and Apple. "We're not going to make a living from e-books," Tucker said. "But at least we can offer e-books to customers who want them, rather than having them go somewhere else."

What took so long?

After scores of presentations, meetings, press reports and roadshows at book fairs and conferences around the world, the eventual launch date of Google eBooks had been a hot topic of discussion in the book world, a topic that heated up even more after a PW-sponsored panel discussion in May, when a Google representative suggested the program would launch over the Summer. So what took so long? Getting it right, Turvey said, a complex task given the program's many moving parts.

"When you build an open platform that includes a numerous third parties, and you're making it accessible on a number of different platforms, it is much more complicated than just building and launching a single closed system," he explained. As for changing the named from Google Editions, Turvey said that was always the plan, and that Google Editions was just a placeholder as the company sketched out the contours of the program with its partners. With the term "e-book" making significant strides in recent years with consumers, re-branding the program Google eBooks was a natural choice.

Google eBooks grew out of a book-scanning program that began in 2004 as Google Print, the forerunner of Google Book Search. Google's e-book program includes a partner program, in which publishers and authors can sign up to have their books scanned and made searchable in Google's index, and a library-scanning program, which includes millions of public domain, in-copyright-but-out-of-print books, and so-called orphan works. The latter two categories of books could also be available for sale from Google if the controversial, still-pending Google settlement is approved.

Google has digitized more than 15 million books in total, including books from more from more than 35,000 partner publishers, and 40 libraries worldwide, from more than 100 countries, in some 400 languages. The launch of Google eBooks means current bestesellers and frontlist titles will now now be added to its extensive catalogue of backlist books.

A Watershed moment?

The launch of Google eBooks is a major development for a maturing e-book market that has been posting triple-digit sales growth, adding not only another huge player to the e-book business, but an open platform approach that challenges the more closed platforms of Amazon's Kindle. While it remains to be seen how consumers will judge Google eBooks, the program would seem to offer numerous advantages, from the convenience of the cloud and the ability to access books on more devices, to making web search a prominent point of entry for bookbuying.

Perhaps the biggest benefit: with over three million books now available online, from Google and other retailers, access is no longer an issue for e-books. That means that stakeholders in the e-book market can now begin to compete by making better e-books, devices, and better e-book reading experiences.