Google, everyone's favorite 800-lb. gorilla, held a panel discussion on Tuesday and a presentation on Wednesday to parse the significance of the e-book explosion and to explain Google Books’ position in it.

On Tuesday, before a standing-room-only crowd, Google Books’ director of strategic partnerships, Tom Turvey, moderated a panel on the present and future of e-books, quizzing four publishing execs on the impact and importance of the format: Andrew Savikas, O’Reilly Media’s v-p of digital initiatives; Evan Schnittman, Bloomsbury’s managing director of group sales and marketing; Amanda Close, v-p of digital sales and business development at Random House; and David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus.

The conversation began with the question of discovery: by far, the most common way for readers to find out about new books and authors is by browsing in a physical store. What e-book sellers have now, said Perseus’s Steinberger, is a system that’s “good for hunters, but not as good for gatherers”: it’s easy to find a book if you know what you’re looking for, but the virtual world offers nothing for the casual browser comparable to the bricks-and-mortar experience. Still, Steinberger and others see a “big lift” in midlist e-books “not easily found in the physical world” because of their limited appeal: e-book copies of PublicAffairs’s lauded but niche-y history title Dancing in the Glory of Monsters account for 62% of its total sales. This same phenomenon applies to backlist titles no longer in print, giving the long tail a “disproportionate lift.”

Savikas conceded that the scale and slope of the long tail is changing, but that the long-tail pattern won’t change. What digital distribution excels at is “meeting demand,” meaning that the e-book revolution will allow a larger number of smaller players to find their audience. Close contended that large publishers like Random also have the “responsibility to find the consumers” for any given title, meaning that it’s more important than ever “to understand our consumers and readers: their preferences, where they spend time, how they spend money.” Though it’s a bit “MBA 101,” as Close puts it, the growing number of “toolsets” online makes consumer research possible on a scale unheard of before the rise of tech innovators like Google and social networks like Facebook.

For all the innovation and publicly available consumer metadata, however, Turvey asked why “all book recommendation engines suck” before answering his own question: there isn’t an algorithm that can compete with a competent, real-life bookseller. “Hand-selling can make you look like a genius,” he said. “After just a few questions, [a bookseller] can say, ‘Here is what you want to read next’ ” with startling accuracy. Schnittman concedes that recommendation engines leave much to be desired, but that “consumers need help” any way they can get it: “We throw thousands of new books at them every month.” He sees the explosion of book lists across the Web—and not just the major bestseller lists—as the best way currently available to get titles into reader’s heads: “Your book makes a list, and it changes the fortunes of that book.”

The panelists clashed mildly over the agency model for e-books. Schnittman isn’t sure if the arrangement will survive, noting that “it serves a purpose in a particular moment,” but the major question is whether publishers are interested in selling directly to consumers. Steinberger believes that such a direct-sales relationship with consumers might be a good idea for companies with “thousands of products to sell,” but “we have millions of products”; a marketing relationship with consumers is essential, but a sales relationship at that scale is simply unattainable. Savikas, meanwhile, insisted that the whole acquisition-based economy of publishing is on the way out: “publishing long-form content will inevitably move the same direction as everything else: access models.”

In the same way, Savikas sees the breakdown of the territorial rights model: once e-books become dominant, which Savikas believes is “inevitable,” the needs of the digital product will drive the industry. “I don’t see how territorial restrictions are at all compatible with the way the Web works,” Savikas said. “It’s a lost cause.” Schnittman and Close disagreed. Close said that territorial rights are a basic requirement to do business with Random House. Steinberger wonders if things will in fact move in the opposite direction, toward ever more and increasingly narrower rights requirements, what he called “micro-rights.”

Turvey says that Google has some of its “very best engineers” working on a way to replicate the offline bookstore discovery experience online, presumably in their Google eBookstore.

Presenting the Facts

Google Books director of product management, Scott Dougall, gave a 40-minute presentation on Wednesday morning addressing the “Three Rs of Google eBooks: Reading, Regions and Retailing.” The first thing he asked was for owners of an e-reader or tablet to raise their hands; he then asked those who had one at this time last year to raise their hands. The difference, something like 50 to four, was even greater than the national statistic Dougall cited, a four-to-one ratio of people who own e-readers or tablets now versus people who owned one a year ago.

After covering the basics of Google eBooks—availability through Google’s own storefront or through the American Booksellers Association-member independent booksellers, buy-once-read-everywhere accessibility, 15 million titles available (of which three million are free), 7,000 publishers signed on, 40,000 partners worldwide, more than 100 million pages read on Google’s online e-reading platform—Dougall went on to discuss the consumption patterns of Google Books buyers. More than 25% of Google Books customers read primarily use Google’s web reader, 25% read from phones, 20% use e-readers, and the remaining 30% read on tablets. Unsurprisingly, New York, L.A, and Chicago top the list of sales by city.

Trends show an increasing number of consumers using their devices to searching for books to buy directly, as opposed to buying from a computer-based web browser. No figures were given regarding sales at the 250 independent bricks-and-mortar stores that opted into the Google eBooks program through the ABA’s IndieCommerce Web system. As noted by an attendee during the Q&A session, indie booksellers’ biggest challenge is getting the e-book-reading public to understand that e-books are available from their local bookstore; Google’s policy against buying advertising makes it unlikely that they can educate the general public, though Dougall did say they “intend to have a wider public presence next year.”

In the meantime, Dougall pointed to some creative marketing strategies already cooked up by booksellers, including one store that puts a smartphone-readable UPC code on each book, which allows readers to buy the e-version instantly from the store. Another shop, San Francisco’s Green Apple Books, produced an online video in which a sock puppet learns how to buy e-books from the store; called “Goooooogly Books,” it’s racked up more than 2,500 views in less than a month.

Though there wasn’t too much Dougall could say about the future of Google eBooks, he did report that the international rollout will kick into high gear this year, with the ultimate goal of making Google eBooks available in 100 countries. Cagily, he answered an audience question about a possible Netflix-style book-rental system by saying, “We haven’t announced anything like that. Yet.”

On the final morning of BEA, Google Books’ engineering director James Crawford presented “Seven Years of Google Books: The Next Chapter” that recapped much of Scott Dougall’s overview from the day before, but from a slightly more technical vantage. In particular, Douglass highlighted the research possibilities opened by the digitization of some 5 billion book pages spanning more than five centuries, for which Google has created a digital humanities project awarding grants to university research groups.

Google has recently developed an “ngram viewer,” which tracks the use of a phrase or phrases (generally 6 words or fewer) across book texts through time. In Crawford’s example, he compared the frequency of two phrases, “the United States are” and “the United States is” to determine at what point in time Americans began thinking of the U.S. as a singular whole, rather than a collection of colony-states (around the time of the Civil War). Other researchers have used the data to track the regularization of irregular verbs through time, finding that the less frequently an irregular verb is used, the faster it gets regularized (dreamt becomes dreamed and spoilt becomes spoiled, while verbs in constant usage like “to be” will likely never change).

Crawford made a few vague pronouncements about the future of Google eBooks without talking about actual products and features coming down the pike (“Our PR people are here, I don’t want them dragging me off-stage”), discussing instead the broad trends in the e-book industry. Crawford did confirm that his engineering team had expanded by 50%, and that they expect the line between magazines, games, and books to become increasingly blurry now that they all coexist on a single platform—though he expects fiction books to remain largely unchanged.