Exact Editions Blog

For Librarians & Publishers


Amazon versus Google for eBooks?

If Amazon have made a false move with the Kindle, who benefits? One beneficiary is surely going to be Apple. The iPhone and the iTouch are already very text capable and they will only get more so as Apple extends the touchscreen interface to larger systems. But the other big gainer, in the long-term perhaps the biggest beneficiary, is going to be Google. Google with its Book Search program and its alliances with publishers and libraries is going to occupy the place that would otherwise appear to be Amazon’s of becoming our preferred source of access to published literature. Amazon seems to have taken a wrong turn in supposing that distribution, rather than access and search, is the key challenge for digital print.

The TeleRead blog has been giving the most thorough all-round coverage of the Kindle and Sony eBook readers. David Rothman who blogs many of the TeleRead pieces admits to being close to being a Kindle supporter; he probably would be, if only it eschewed DRM and embraced the .epub Open eBook standard. But what would Google say to the .epub format? Google will ignore .epub, which is inimical to their advertising business model. The Google Book Search approach makes downloads irrelevant (the downloads GBS provides are very clunky, much less usable than the online GBS), in fact, for Google, downloads are just as outmoded and uneccessary as DRM.

Google and Apple, between them already have the solution for eBooks (and its not a download solution). Read and search on your iPhone and access via a web browser, anything in print can be handled that way. More to the point: everything in print can be handled that way. Everything will be searched via the web, everything will be accessed via the web. Downloads are pretty much of an irrelevance. The question is: what do authors and publishers plan to do about that?

Answer: “Maybe the publishers should themselves try selling/granting access direct”. Aside from Google with its Book Search, the publishers are the other variable in the market-place which has a promising opportunity if the Amazon Kindle download system bombs. Evan Schnittman at the OUP blog nearly gets there. After all, scientific and technical publishers have made a reasonable fist of creating a digital market for their STM periodicals. Book publishers need to create access opportunities and figure out how to sell digitally direct.


Content Serving and Guanxi


Reading Books or the Web


  1. We realized this years ago, and built Safari books online as a subscription service accessed with a browser. And it’s got revenues in excess of those widely cited for the entire downloadable ebook industry.That being said, there is lots of room for the download market as well. In music, downloads have certainly trumped streaming access. But that has a lot to do with P2P file sharing and mp3. That wind has never supported ebooks, because there’s no way for people to “rip” books they already own to ebook devices.

  2. Right. Safari is an excellent example of what publishers should be doing and of what they can more easily do now. It is an example to be followed, to be bettered and generalised. A new kind of intermediary is probably needed to cover niches which are not as focussed as the IT/programmer mainstream which Safari targets. That is the opportunity that Amazon are missing in focussing on the download model of digital ebooks.Amazon eschewed the opportunity to let users “rip” PDF files. It looks like a clear mistake. But how far off is the machine that can ‘rip’ a print volume? A robotic page-turning device that would allow ordinary book buyers to scan and convert print books to a digital format? That still looks a step beyond the consumer market — but it could well happen that one of the by-products of the Google library-ingestion project is that such omnivorous low-cost OCR scanners will be produced. When they are available we will see consumers lining up their shelves of books in the way that three or four years ago we were busily converting our music CDs for the iPod.It could happen and perhaps Google will wait until it does before settling the dispute with the AAP and the Authors Guild!

  3. It’s worth noting, though, that Safari represents a special case of books: reference works that become essentially worthless to most readers a few years out.Unlike nearly all the other books I buy, I don’t particularly care if I no longer have access to the 3rd edition of _Active Directory_ in a few years; in fact, I’d rather have it stop taking up space on my shelf (and replaced, if appropriate by the 5th edition). I’m also much more likely to consult the book many times, but in small chunks, not the whole thing at once.This is different from most other books I buy, where I typically do a full read-through and occasionally come back to. Some of those return visits are for particular sections, looking up quotes, and other short consults; others are re-reads of most or all of the content. Many of the books also get passed on, to other family members, to friends, to libraries, or used bookstores.These different patterns can call for different access patterns and business models. They help explain, for instance, why Safari is so popular as an online service, as most people go to it to find particular sections on information they need (which might be in *any* book in the collection, not necessarily a particular title they had in mind at the start.)But they also explain why I have little or no interest in buying most of my other books as an online service (and for that matter, why I’m not tempted to buy a Kindle, despite some interesting new features it has). Most books I buy (outside the Safari-like titles) are ones I buy because I want to own them (or give them to someone else, who can then own them). For this sort of desire, online services or proprietary formats that can be withdrawn or made obsolete at any time, and that don’t support a way of converting to a usable “owned” copy (as Apple’s iTMS did out of the gate, with its standard CD burning feature), don’t scratch the itch.That doesn’t mean that online services are worthless except for Safari-like titles. I’ve already gotten a taste of some of the cool things you can do with searching across large book collections like Google’s. But it does mean that you can’t count on that model to substitute fully for the many ways people like to acquire and use books.

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