Things are getting yet more interesting in the e-book marketplace, at both the bottom and top of the sales spectrum.
Everybody’s been wondering when and how Google would get into the game, and now we know. Later this summer, Google Editions will be launched. But the search giant has a fascinating partner: the American Booksellers Association, representing the roughly 1,400 independent bookstores who are still standing. This means that Google Editions will be the #1 source for e-books on the websites of great independent retailers. Remember a while ago we were talking about price and convenience being the enemies of indie booksellers? Now they have a way to fight back, at least on the e-book front. All you need is a Web browser and any Internet-connected device, and you can buy your e-books from an independent store. (Some dedicated e-readers, like Kindle, can take you there, but these devices were not built to be Web surfers or to store files directly from the Net. What you get instead is super-long battery life and almost infiinite storage.) Google will be acting as a distributor — a middleman — and taking a piece, but it doesn’t take a telescope to see where this is going: one day you’ll be able to do a Google search for a book and buy the electronic edition then and there.
At the high end, we see that Borders has launched its own e-bookstore, to be serviced by Canada’s Kobo, in which Borders already has a minority stake. Their plan is to be aggressive. Not every publisher has subscribed to Apple’s “agency” pricing model, in which the publisher sets the e-price and gets a piece. In fact, the most important holdout is Random House, the biggest of them all, which is still selling e-books through the traditional wholesale model: the publisher is paid the wholesale price and the retailer can set any price s/he likes. Borders is going to try deep discounting on titles from Random and smaller publishers who haven’t signed on with Apple. All this weekend, they’re offering free downloads of five e-books, including one by Dean Koontz and Kevin Anderson. The offer expires Sunday. Like Google Editions undoubtedly will, Borders.com supports PC, Mac, BlackBerry, Android, and Apple mobile devices, including iPad, but not dedicated e-readers like Kindle. I just tried the brand spanking new site (it went live two days ago) and it’s still kludgy: for example, it offered to save my credit card number for future purchases but couldn’t do it. (I did get the free Koontz, though.)
Not all of this activity will stick. But more players will help keep everyone honest, and maybe postpone the day when more publishers have the outrageous temerity to charge more for an electronic edition than for a paperback. This sickening, shameful practice has already begun, but as Amazon points out, “This price was set by the publisher.” How foolish can the big publishers get? Keep watching – and keep reading.