Did Google disappoint with its eBooks launch?

Google launched its much-anticipated—and much-delayed—ebook service this week, serving up several hundred thousand commercial ebooks for sale in addition three million free, out-of-copyright books. Formerly known as Google Editions, the new Google ebooks service launched in the US with the company promising an international roll-out in “early 2011”.

The Google ebooks service is a major boost for the industry-backed ePub open ebook format and pits Google squarely against market leader Amazon and its proprietary Kindle. It supports online, cloud-based reading and downloadable ebooks in ePub or PDF formats. And it supports Adobe’s ACS4 DRM (digital rights management) system that the wider book industry is backing for ebook encryption.

With its new service, Google also throws a lifeline of sorts to many independent booksellers who have been left out of the ebook game until now due to the complexity of setting up an ebookstore. Google designed its ebooks service to support both a retail and wholesale model, allowing it to sell directly to consumers as well as via booksellers’ websites.

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 (like this). 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.

A much more interesting example of what the Google wholesale/affiliate model can offer is the social book site Goodreads which is implementing Google ebooks “Buy” buttons into its site so users can easily buy the books featured in online discussions and recommendations. Sites like this, blogs and other well-trafficked sites are more likely than booksellers to do well with Google eBooks.

Amazon stole a lot of Google’s thunder with its announcement a day after Google’s of Kindle for the Web. Kindle for the Web replicates two of the key features of Google ebooks: It allows you to read a Kindle eBook from any device with a web browser, and it lets other websites sell ebooks using Amazon’s service.

While Amazon won’t be taking its new competition lightly, it seems to have little to worry about from the first generation of Google’s service.

It’s clear, too, that Google’s own ebookstore is fairly basic compared to the slick, personalised, obsessively customer-focused  experience that a visitor to Amazon receives. And customer service (of the human kind) doesn’t appear to be part of Google’s offering at this point. Clearly, Google is moving into unfamiliar territory with online retailing.

The early hype surrounding Google ebooks indicated that it would be a pure web-based service but in its version 1.0 release, Google, like its competitors, has taken the app route for mobile devices such as the iPhone, iPad and Android devices. (At the time of writing it is still to deliver its iPhone/iPad app. [UPDATE 16 December. Still no sign of the app in the NZ App Store so it looks like Google will be holding back international app releases until the full paid service is available in a market. I’m not sure that this is the wisest choice for Google since it could still be used for the millions of free titles in the interim which are, in any case, accessible through the web version.]

Even its web-based service is a little disappointing and much less ground-breaking than we’d been led to expect. It’s a Javascript application, similar to others such as Monocle and Bookworm, rather than the expected HTML5 web app. As a result, one high profile feature that’s been touted by Google is still to be delivered, namely offline reading via the web app.

So, after a long gestation period and the hype that came with this long build-up, Google has done a bit of a Blio and launched, perhaps prematurely, with an underwhelming offering. However, it’s a version 1.0 offering and if Google stays the course and continually upgrades both the technology and, importantly, its mastery of online ebook selling, it has the potential to be a useful addition to the ebook landscape and hopefully a counter to Amazon’s continuing dominance which shows no sign of diminishing.