Google eBooks is out! (now, what does that mean for readers, authors, and publishers?)

Google has announced today the launch of their long-awaited ebook selling service.  With some fanfare, spreading across the internet, the news is growing.  There are big expectations for this venture.  After all, this is Google, right?  Has to be big! First off, what is Google offering?  They're advertising about 3 million books, most of which are old, out of print (public domain) books like the other services out there.  In terms of new or recent books, their selection seems to be similar to Barnes & Nobles and Amazon, the two leaders in ebook sales.  They're offering ebooks in the ePub and PDF to start, and have software to support their ebooks on iOS devices (iPod, iPhone, and iPad), Android phones and tablets, a browser-agnostic "read on the web" for PC and Mac that seems to work well with most browsers, and support for Nook and Sony ereaders as well.

Notably absent is any support for Kindle.  Are we sensing any hostility, yet?

What is Google touting as selling points?  "Freedom",. is the word.  You can read their books on a host of devices (well, yes - almost as many as B&N or Amazon books, and quite a bit less than Smashwords books).  Your books reside in a cloud server, so you can get them from anywhere (just like, um, Kindle, and Nook, and Apple, and...).

And you can shop wherever you want.

(loud sound of brakes screeching)

Google books really are not all that different, on the surface.  Same formats (with an intentional diss at Amazon).  Same "books on a cloud" as the other big players are using.  Same attempt to be readable on as many platforms as possible.  But Google is partnering with a number of other companies to sell these books: notably, the members of the American Booksellers Association, which is the organization/union for small, independent bookstores all over the USA.  That's one of the biggest elements in this announcement: the support of the indie bookstore.  Now, if you run a book store, you can create a web store and use that space to sell Google eBooks.  You'll get a chunk of every sale you make.  This has the potential to be a lifeline to struggling indie bookstores all over.  Ebooks have so far been a terminal death-knell to the indie bookstore right along with the large chain bookstore - but the large chains have managed to set up big websites to sell books on, and stay alive.  Indie booksellers have so far not been able to do that, because of the cost and effort involved in aggregating that much content.  It's just beyond the means of a small business.  Enter Google, doing it for the indie, and it opens some interesting doors.

But with that one (notable) difference in mind, most of the rest of the service seems to be same old, same old.  If anything, the service is harder to search and use than most.  I'd say it resembled Kobo more than it does Amazon or B&N, but that would be an insult to Kobo.  You can search by genre - and then sub-genre - and that's about it.  In theory there is a button to sort by date published, but it doesn't work.  There is a button to select for "free only" which fills your screen not with recent free titles, but with just about every book that's in the public domain in that genre.  No way to search by bestselling, or by rating, or by price.  In short, this is one of the hardest to navigate ebookstores on the internet, with one of the worst usability levels I've seen.

Added to that issue, Google is paying publishers and authors only about 75-80% what the 'going rate' is for ebooks.  Smashwords pays 85%.  Amazon and Apple pay 70%.  B&N pays only 65%.  But Google, for some reason, is only paying 52.5% of each sale to the author/publisher.

Now, if you were a publisher (or author, whose royalty per ebook is based on what the publisher gets), where would YOU rather see sales of your book made?  The site paying you $7 for a ten dollar book, or the site paying you $5.25?  That buck-seventy-five adds up, when you multiply it by many thousands of book sales.  The net result, I think, will be that authors continue to redirect fans from their own sites not to Google, but to Amazon, iBooks, and the B&N ebookstore.  Publishers will generally just sell the ebooks themselves from their own site - but if they aren't set up for that, and are redirecting to a seller, which sellers will they give preference to?  The ones who pay them the best, of course.

Bottom line for readers: There's a new ebookstore in town.  It is harder to use than any other ebookstore out there.  It was released with a buggy and incomplete interface.  If you want a Kindle format there, you're just out of luck (how hard would it have been to put .mobi there too? not hard at all).  They're basically offering the same books as every other major seller, for mostly the same devices as every other seller, "on a cloud" like most of the major sellers.  But oh - every time you buy a book from your favorite author there, instead of from Apple, Amazon, or B&N, you're taking income away from that author.  If you buy books from authors whom you hate, buy them from Google.  Otherwise, please buy elsewhere.

Bottom line for authors: Well, I've done the payment thing to death.  Honestly, if you're self-publishing, I would almost suggest skipping this one.  Almost.  It's probably worth tossing your book up there too, just because there is basically no effort involved, and it might make you some sales you don't get elsewhere.  Don't expect a ton of sales from Google ebooks, at least not for a while.  The interface is going to turn people off, and they're going to go back to buying from wherever they were buying before.  Eventually, Google might get their act together, but til then, don't expect much.

Bottom line for publishers: Guys, you have the OOMPH to get on Google about their issues.  They had the potential with this to create a vibrant source for multi-platform epub-standard books.  Maybe to swing the industry away from being dominated by a closed format (Amazon .AMZ) and more toward the open format ePub.  I'll tell you honestly - with the release as it is, it ain't happening.  I don't know if they just released too early, or simply had no clue what they were doing, but what they have is not going to move the market at all.  And while you're at it, talk to them about the fee-splitting, eh?  It costs Google virtually nothing to warehouse and sell an ebook.  A penny a book, maybe?  Sure, they're the retailer, so they deserve a share of the pie.  But half?  When the author is spending hundreds of hours on the book, and then the publisher is putting out scores or even hundreds of man-hours on the book themselves?  This is not an equitable division.

Bottom line for Google: Guys.  Seriously.  I've been in the computer industry.  I've seen good computer product releases, and I've seen ones that were released way to early.  And I've seen those that were released when they were still barely in alphatest state.  You folks have done the latter.  Congratulations: you are now the proud owners of the worst, least usable, least functional, most buggy ebook store on the internet.  Fix this.  You have a reputation for decent product, and this?  This is the sort of thing I'd expect to see from an amateur.  You are entering an industry with an 800lb gorilla owning 3/4 of all sales, and then you have deliberately thumbed your nose at said 800lb gorilla by offering compatibility with everyone else except them.  And then you have released a service that is so laughably inferior to the 800lb gorilla's that they don't even need to sit on you and squash you - you've already done that for them.  Wake up.  Fast.