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.
Another great post Martin. You’ll see I’ve quoted and linked to you on a post.
Thanks, Anna. The question you’ve been toying with in your post – about why Google has struggled in this space – is certainly a fascinating one. You make an interesting point that Google tends to release ‘beta’ products that aren’t quite ready for prime time, while Apple (and Amazon) don’t let things out until they are well and truly ready. It gets to the heart of success in this business: the crucial consumer experience. The difference between being ‘almost’ right and being right is usually subtle but it’s a chasm if you don’t nail it. It’s the reason I was a bit dismayed when I tried the Copia app. The problem isn’t just with the app, it points to an organisational issue that they would think this didn’t matter.
I have to say that I’m optimistic that Google will start to realise some of its potential in the content sales area. Of the “Big Three”, it’s certainly been the one that has done the best job of promoting an open web and open environment. I’d really like to see them doing well as a counter-balance.
I’ve worked a lot with technical companies and they really need to think a bit more about the customer experience. Google isn’t alone there! But like you, I do have faith that Google may work these issues though. With Copia, I will have to try the app for myself. But as someone pointed out to me today: for some booksellers knowing they have the support of the APA and Bowker will be comforting. Also see Jon Page’s post about this topic: http://bitethebook.com/2012/04/09/the-perils-of-selling-ebooks/
Great post Martin and thanks for sharing the link Anna.
Content is the biggest challenge all eBook vendors face and not even Amazon has a complete catalogue for the Australian market (I think Kobo is the closest).
APA endorsement does not guarantee content for Copia particular from the big overseas publishers so Copia will have to do a lot of the same work Booki.sh and ReadCloud have already been doing which in my experience takes a hell of a lot of time.
I wish TitlePage Plus had taken a more agnostic approach and fostered local eBook vendors rather than bringing in another overseas one.
So does a bookseller retain the customer completely with the ReadCloud soution? Or could the Google way (building their database from the booksellers only to then remove the bookseller out of the equation) happen using ReadCloud, Book.ish, Copia or anyone else that wants to enter this market?
@Bob That’s a very interesting question, I’m not sure of the answer in these cases and booksellers should certainly check before signing up. Anyone know? Magazine publishers have been fighting this fight and major platforms have implemented data sharing arrangements with publishers, usually on an opt-in basis for consumers.
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