In a pre-holiday announcement on its blog, Google quietly pulled the plug on its attempt to help booksellers to sell ebooks: it announced the end of its reseller programme in which Google provided the technology for booksellers to sell ebooks from their own websites.
The move affects partners in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. In Australia, partners Dymocks and Booktopia have only been selling Google Ebooks since Christmas. Other launches, including The Co-op Bookshop and QBD were planned. Resellers will have until January 2013 to find an alternative ebook platform or withdraw from the market. Booktopia already appears to have acted, with no sign of Google Ebooks on its site other than an old home page mention.
It’s important to note that Google isn’t pulling out of ebooks: it’s simply dropped its strategy of working with booksellers to help them sell ebooks. “That effort — the reseller program — has not gained the traction that we hoped it would,” said Google on its blog.
Bringing bricks and mortar booksellers into the ebook revolution was always a brave — even noble — effort by Google, given how little online presence and expertise booksellers had. In fact, the scale of the challenge Google Ebooks faced was clear from its launch in December 2010 which included a high profile partnership with several hundred US indie booksellers. As we noted at the time:
Alas, early implementations by US booksellers are poor and show that both Google and the indie booksellers have a long way to go if they want to take share from established players such as Amazon and Kobo.
The indie booksellers that joined using the American Booksellers Association’s IndieBound platform used a simple search facility to integrate Google ebooks into their sites … . This won’t attract customers away from Amazon and its ilk. The only site I found that offered browsing and some sort of curated Google ebooks service, albeit fairly basic, was US indie Powells. All of this serves to underline just what a tough job indies will have getting into the game given their failure to embrace the web in any meaningful way.
As booksellers ponder their strategy in a post-Google world, the option of withdrawing from ebooks will no doubt be seriously considered by many. If Google’s clout wasn’t enough to crack this market for them, will any alternative be better? One thing that’s increasingly clear is that there is surprisingly little in common between offline and online bookselling. Google’s blog post hinted at this when it noted, “it’s clear that the reseller program has not met the needs of many readers or booksellers.” The reality is that most readers have shown little interest, or loyalty, when it comes to buying ebooks from their local bookstore: they prefer to buy from ebook specialists — often tied to the e-reader devices they own. And booksellers’ traditional strengths don’t translate well online.
For those booksellers who decide to stick with ebooks, there are now plenty of white label ebookstore suppliers who can step in to fill the gap left by Google. In Australia, home-grown offerings ReadCloud and Booki.sh could benefit. So could the Australian Publishers Association (APA) and Thorpe-Bowker who recently announced a partnership with US white label ebook provider Copia to power the forthcoming Titlepage Plus ebook service for booksellers.
But even with this backing, booksellers have a tough challenge ahead of them. Copia, with three years of development already behind it, still has some significant rough edges to iron out. Notable among them is its truly awful e-reading app which inexplicably requires scrolling through the ebooks (none of the easy page swipes that are offererd by all other e-readers); and it offers only basic formatting and a minimalist feature set. This is one of the most critical consumer-facing items so it’s surprising the service would launch in this state.
So, where to for Google? Google has rightly decided to focus its efforts on selling directly to the consumer as part of its larger Google Play store where ebooks join music, video and apps in the digital content business. This approach is closer to its major rivals Amazon and Apple who enjoy advantages from their direct strategy and the greater control it gives them over product and delivery.
Expect, too, that Google will move quickly to address one of the other gaps in its strategy — offering its own device — something that has proved vital to the success of rivals, including ebook specialists Kobo and Barnes and Noble.
And perhaps we’ll also see Google quickly open its Ebooks store to the rest of the world: Until now, its policy has been to only sell ebooks in countries where it had established local partnerships.
Martin Taylor (@nztaylor) has been involved in the publishing, technology and internet fields for more than 20 years. He operates a digital publishing consultancy and founded the Digital Publishing Forum, an initiative to accelerate the development of digital publishing in New Zealand. In a former life, he published technology and business magazines.