Ceci n’est pas un ebook

It was perhaps the most significant news to break since the launch of the Kindle. Google rolled out its inevitable and longstanding plans to enter the digital content selling arena at BEA, which it has dubbed, Google Editions. Google Editions is cleverly named because it explains what it isn’t (ebooks), where you get it (Google), and, by putting the word Google together with an assumed possessive plural of “Editions,” there is an implied unique quality to these editions that is not found anywhere else. These are not ebooks, these are Google Editions.

Google Editions will be composed of content that is currently (or will be) found in the Google Partner Program. The Partner Program of Google Book Search is the discoverability service that Google offers to publishers in which books are voluntarily indexed and made available through Google’s search engine. Consumers can find and explore up to 20% of any book, per month, and can purchase print copies of the book from major retailing sites and the publisher. Google pairs advertising with the pages and shares the income with the publishers, however publishers can opt out of the advertising if they so wish. Google does not charge the booksellers (or publishers) for placement on the “get this book” pages, nor does it receive any portion of the sales generated.

Google Editions is the coming out party for “cloud publishing,” where content is purchased, but never physically owned.
Google Editions will enable consumers to buy instant access to 100% of the content of a single title (as opposed to a random sampling of 20%) along with the option to order the associated print book. The original thinking about a purchase model at Google was more of a pay-per-view idea. Let consumers find content they need instantly, then allow them to purchase access for a limited time, or, if they wanted, long-term ownership. Some of the thinking behind offering an online-access-only product was prompted by the then-substantiated belief that ebooks were a failure. Then the Kindle came along and created the consumer ebook market. With consumers clearly willing to buy ebooks and read them on devices, even Google’s staunchest ebook skeptics had to admit that consumers suddenly wanted ebooks.

But ebooks posed a tactical and philosophical quandary for Google. Ebooks would require Google to offer an offline product – something with which they had little or no experience – and would require DRM, the very notion of which runs counter to Google’s cultural ethos. However, at about the same time that the Kindle was launched, a new Google product was created that helped change the outcome of the ebook debate at Google – Google Gears.

Google Gears is a piece of software that enables users to use certain Google products, Gmail for example, when a user is offline. The way this works for Gmail is that Google Gears creates a “cache” file of all email activity, constantly synchronizing online activity with a cache file, enabling up-to-date access of email when offline. Consumers can read, manage, and create new emails and, when back online, send and resynchronize with the Gmail server.

So what does this have to do with ebooks? Well, Google Gears technology also powers Google Reader, Google’s popular RSS reader. Consumers who use Google Reader know that all the blogs they read on Google Reader are available to them offline, but are only as up to date as the last online synchronization. Google Gears enables email and blogs to be read offline… so the logical next step is being able to read books found on Google Book Search, offline.

The current Google Book Search reader interface contains “get this book” sidebar links to various retailers, page navigation buttons enabling single page and folio viewing, as well as zooming, and a scroll bar to navigate quickly through the pages. When Google Editions launches, one will have the option to buy access to this entire book online, and because of Google Gears, offline as well. The interface will most likely be close to what it is today (I am sure they will add features such as landscape viewing, etc., that make it better to use on a small screen device). The transition from what you see on the screen today to an offline setting will be easy, technologically.

So why do I think this is such a big deal? Because if this works, it may be the death of ebooks.

Let me clarify that statement. This may be the death of stand alone ebook platforms where consumers purchase and download products onto specific devices. Google Editions is the coming out party for “cloud publishing” where content is purchased, but never physically owned. Cloud publishing is where downloading will only be done to enable offline access, not ownership. If this works, we won’t care about epub, we wont care about Digital Editions vs. Mobipocket vs. Kindle Reader. All we will need is a device with a browser that allows us to log on to our Google Account and install Google Gears.

Amazon is currently winning the race for US ebook domination and have planted a flag on the publishing landscape with a picture of a Kindle on it. Could Google Editions and cloud publishing (where content isn’t tethered to a single device but rather to any available browser) make the ebook land grab irrelevant? I think all will depend on whether publishers accept the concept of cached content. Someone is bound to ask how the DRM works on Google Editions and find that it is pretty much an irrelevant question. The cached text sitting in a browser file somewhere on a device is indeed crackable and could be used to create pirated versions… but in reality, any version, no matter how strict the DRM, is crackable by those who want to crack it. The question is whether publishers feel comfortable that Google Editions renders casual piracy too difficult for teh average person to bother. That answer will depend on how well Google educates publishers and authors about Google Editions and how it works.

magritte2So is this really the death of the ebook? No, but it’s not the ebook the industry has been fretting about for 10 years. It’s like Rene Magritte’s famous work of art, Ceci N’est Pas une Pipe – This is not a Pipe. The title defies the image, producing a powerful debate between the power of what we see vs what we are told. Ebooks, we are told, are downloaded and held on devices and decidedly NOT read online. Google has put forward the proposition that what we see as an ebook, is not an ebook – just a way of thinking about ebooks.

It may not be an ebook in the way we see them today, but Google Editions has a chance to redefine ebooks forever.

Unbelievably – for the second time in the last 2 months Mike Shatzkin and I blogged the same thing on the same day. Check out his smart take at http://bit.ly/F1QxQ

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Tags: Amazon, Digital Publishing, DRM, ebooks, econtent, Evan Schnittman, Google, Google Book Search, Kindle, publishing, XML