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Fragmentation & the Big Fight Ahead

So the theory is compelling, in fact so compelling it is thought much of the delay behind Google Editions was due to licensing with publishers and retailers reluctant to concede so much power to the search giant. Despite this in November last year its controversial Google Books reached a groundbreaking agreement with authors and publishers and now the Wall Street Journal reports:

"In recent weeks, independent booksellers, which are expected to play a big role in Google Editions, began receiving contracts from their trade group. Several publishers said they were exchanging files with Google—a sign that it is close to launch, publishers say."

Having worked so hard to establish their own eBook brands, however, don't expect big fish like Amazon and Sony to take this lying down. Both retailers also hold a number of exclusive agreements with high profile authors, Amazon listing deals with Paolo Coelho and Ian McEwan while each has various subscription agreements with newspapers and magazines. The flip side being a technology designed to reinvent reading and book sales could well end up fracturing it and bullying smaller publishers into picking a side.

Before we fret too much though it is worth remembering that key aspects to Google Editions remain shrouded in mystery. The American Booksellers Association says over 200 independent US booksellers could sign up to Editions, but actual numbers have yet to be revealed nor the names of leading lights revealed. For a service with such lofty goals it has been notably short of hype – especially with less than a month to go before launch.

Part of this could be connected to the other great unknown: margins. Unlike Amazon, Sony et al and the swath of app stores out there, Google has yet to reveal what cut independent booksellers would get for signing on the Editions dotted line.

Finally will Google look to undercut existing eBook prices? Many eBooks still have RRPs perilously close to their paperback equivalents and in an age where paying more for MP3s than a physical CD is laughable it does little to convert sceptics. If rivals want to fight Google Editions, they may have to engage some wholly necessary price slashing.

All of which suggests the hottest page turner of 2011 could well be the eBook war itself…

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