First Impressions on Google's New Bookstore

By Tom Peters |

The Google ebookstore (http://books.google.com/ebooks) officially opened on Monday.  At launch, Google ebooks are available only in the U.S., but they plan to go international in 2011.  On Day One Google claimed to offer the world's largest selection of ebooks, with “...nearly 3 million free ebooks and hundreds of thousands of titles that are ready for purchase.”  If and when the dust settles on the Google Book Settlement, those numbers should rise substantially. 

Google ebooks may be read on any computer with a browser with Javascript enabled.  Evidently, offline reading via the browser interface is not currently allowed, but the browser interface has several nice features, such as adjusting the text size, the font type, the line spacing, and the justification of the text block (left-only or left-and-right).  You even can toggle between a reflowable display of the text and the scanned version.  Both views seem to give real page numbers that can be cited and found even in the pulpy versions of these books. 

Google ebooks also may be read on Android devices, many iThingies, and most dedicated ereaders. The Android app will run on Android devices running 2.1 (Eclair) or later.  There's a QR code on the webpage for the Android app that will send the app directly to your Android device.  Reading on an Android device makes offline reading feasible.

The i-app is compatible with iPhones, iPads, and iPod Touches running iOS 3.0 or later.  It also allows offline reading.  If you own or use a dedicated ereader device, Google ebooks are readable on these devices.  Both PDF and EPUB file formats may be downloaded and transferred, either unprotected or protected by Adobe Content Server 4 software.  If you transfer content to your portable computer via a desktop computer, you will need to be running Adobe Digital Editions on your desktop PC or Mac.  The long list of supported ereader devices include numerous Sony Reader models, both the Nook and NookCOLOR from Barnes & Noble, various Kobo reader models, iRex, Jinke, and many more.  But no Kindle. 

You can search by keyword across all 3 million or so ebooks in the Google ebookstore, or you can limit your search to one of 20 sub-collections, such as fiction, history, business & investing.  Fantasy, humor, and, oddly, reference get their own category designations, but classic literature does not.  Hrrmph.

Your personal collection of Google ebooks are placed into the “My Google ebooks” area.  My virtual shelf came with three preselected titles:  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (shades of RocketBook!), Great Expectations, and Pride and Prejudice.  Initially I suspected that those three freebies were somehow specifically tailored for my fine literary tastes.  After a few moments musing of myself as an amalgam of Alice, Pip, and Mr. Darcy, I logged into another institutional Google account and found the same three classics waiting for me there.  I’d been Magwitched. 

Being the cheapskate that I am, I began building My Google ebooks shelf by selecting another free ebook, Moby Dick.  I selected the book on my main office computer.  A half hour later, while at the public library with my netbook, when I logged in to my Google account Moby Dick was waiting for me.  Google even claims it will enable you to pick up reading where you left off, regardless of device. 

Then I let my digits do some walking and did some comparison shopping for a few books on my wish list.  Stanislas Dahaene’s 2009 book, Reading in the Brain, sells for $9.99 both in the Google ebookstore and as a Kindle edition.  The Kindle edition of No Shelf Required sells for $46.80 (ouch); the Google ebookstore has a list price of $41.60.  You Are Not a Gadget is $9.99 for the Kindle edition, but only $9.48 at the Google ebookstore.

Then I actually purchased a book.  You Are Not a Gadget was my selection.  I think this may be the first time I’ve ever overtly purchased anything from Google.   The online credit card transaction went smoothly.  The Terms of Service stated that I was purchasing this book for personal, non-commercial use.  I’m not an attorney, but I think that rules out library purchases.    

If you prefer to purchase Google eBooks from somewhere other than the Google eBooks site, you can purchase from Powells, alibris, and other independent bookstores.  When you perform a search, you can limit the results to only the titles that are free.  I didn't have to browse very long before I encountered a title for which downloading the ebook was not allowed.  All you can do is read it online, even if you “purchase” it.  You can view a sample of the book before you make a purchase decision.  You even can do some searching of the full text.

At the moment, you cannot import ebooks from other sources or your own documents into your “My Google eBooks” shelf.  Google is hosting several help forums where users can share advice, vent, and rave.  Each forum is organized around a broad theme:  how-to; getting started; problems; reading and managing your Google eBooks, tips/tricks, etc. 

In one of the odder aspects of the new service, I noticed that Google makes challenging materials as easy as pie.  If you click on the help question mark link in the web interface, you are presented with three options:  access the Google Books help center, access info on how to use the web reader, and report offensive content.  When I chose that ominous third option, I was presented with a form to report illegal or offensive content.  The “issues” dropdown menu offered the following infractions:  spam (Spam inside an ebook!?  Was that one of James Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses?); graphic sexual content (complete with separate text and image check boxes – check all that apply); hate speech; child abuse; and the sinister “other.” 

Now that Google eBooks has been released into the wild, the two big questions for me are: 

  1. What will this mean for libraries?  Is this another nail in the coffin?  The fact that Google and OverDrive both are using Adobe’s DRM system, rather than Amazon’s, Apple’s, or Barnes & Noble’s, offers a faint glimmer of hope that some sort of library lending model may eventually emerge.   
  2. How has Google raised the bar over what other ebook vendors already are doing?  They are offering quite a few books, and perhaps a price war for content may erupt.  Then again, perhaps not.