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Summary:

The UK’s Interead on Tuesday announced an agreement with Google to make more than a million titles from the search giant’s vast library of digitized public domain books available for free on its Cool-er e-book readers via the Coolerbooks.com web site. It was Google’s first e-book […]

books_logoThe UK’s Interead on Tuesday announced an agreement with Google to make more than a million titles from the search giant’s vast library of digitized public domain books available for free on its Cool-er e-book readers via the Coolerbooks.com web site.

It was Google’s first e-book partnership with a company based outside the U.S. (although the $249 Cool-er e-reader has been available here since May). But it was hardly Google’s first e-book flag-planting. Why is that important if Google is only giving the books away anyway? Because it doesn’t plan to always be giving books away for free.

Planting the Free Flag

Google announced a similar deal with Sony last month, to bring its library of public domain e-books to Sony’s new Reader. In July, it partnered with Barnes & Noble to make the free collection available through B&N’s relaunched eBookstore. The Barnes & Nobel deal also plants Google’s free e-books API on Plastic Logic’s e-book reader, which is slated to launch early next year and will feature an exclusive e-book sourcing deal with B&N.

Google, in fact, seems bent on planting its API on as many non-Kindle e-book readers as possible, which is not good news for Amazon.

Apart from providing ammunition to potential Kindle-killers, the spread of Google’s million-title-strong library across non-Kindle devices seems designed to encourage consumers to see their e-book reader as yet another device for accessing free stuff from the Internet. Google has also embraced the open ePub standard for distributing its free e-books, which Sony and Interead support but Amazon does not. Over time, that can only erode the perceived value of Amazon’s Kindle service. At the same time, Google’s library of free books serves as a kind of Trojan horse to get its e-book API onto as many devices as possible.

The Paid Plan

It’s all part of a grander plan. Google announced in June that it will launch an e-book e-commerce platform by the end of 2009 that will allow publishers to sell e-books directly to consumers. While Google will take a commission on the sales, it will be nothing like the 70 percent cut Amazon claims on the sale of Kindle books.

In order to make its platform attractive to publishers, Google needs to have access to as many devices as possible. Colonizing those devices now with “free” is a way to build out the platform and train consumers to look to Google for e-books.

The real pay-off for Google, though, will come if its settlement agreement with publishers in the Google Book Search case is ultimately approved by the court. Under the terms of that proposed agreement (which is being opposed by everyone from Amazon to the German government), Google would be given a blanket license to digitize and sell so-called “orphan works”— books that are still under copyright but whose rights owners are either unknown or cannot be located. Monies from the sales of those titles — minus Google’s take — would be held in escrow by a new collection society called the Book Rights Registry to be disbursed to the rights owners should they ever turn up. Because the settlement stems from private litigation, however, Google alone would be able to rely on its blanket license. Anyone else — including and particularly Amazon — would either have to negotiate individually for those rights (not so easy when the rights owner is unknown) or risk litigation should the rights owner ever show up.

There have been millions of such books published over the decades from U.S. publishers alone. Google’s effectively exclusive license to exploit that vast library commercially could be enormous competitive advantage over other e-book providers, including Amazon.

A decision from the court on whether to approve the terms of the deal is expected before the end of this year. Is it any wonder that Google is anxious to get its API onto as many devices as possible before that happens?

Paul Sweeting writes The Media Wonk blog and is the author of The Evolution of the E-Book Market for GigaOM Pro.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

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  1. Well thought out article. Indeed Google is planting the trojan horse for it’s API – elaborately concealed by the plethora of free books on offer. However, aren’t we witnessing the prelude to a “format war” for books here? There is no rocket science to getting book content displayed electronically – and sooner or later consumers will want these book business guys to cleanup their act – and offer books that are readable on all different readers. Google needs to grow up (or go back to good old Google days) and take leadership in defining an open standard for e-books. This of course does not mean that books have to be for free. What it does means is to have an open standard between e-book devices and e-books while allowing a revenue model for e-books (and probably also for devices that claim to render them) – in much the same way as DVD standards evolved.

    The trojan horse game and “do no evil” do not belong in the same sentence.

    1. Cheese,

      I’m sure that Google won’t publish their scanned books with DRMs, the way Amazon is doing. I can also be pretty sure that Google will make their scanned versions open so that they can be read on as many different devices as possible – not just e-book devices, but also computers, netbooks and cellphones, again unlike Amazon.

      On a side note, I have been extremely surprised by Amazon’s shenanigans in this whole e-book business: DRM’d publications, somewhat of a closed device, and now litigating against Google Books. I expected them to be more enlightened than this.

      LL

      1. LL, thanks for the clarification. It is not my intention to point fingers at any camp in the book fight. However, as a consumer, I wish this format war is settled sooner than later. I would like to have a choice when it comes to buying ebook readers as well as ebooks. I don’t want to be held at ransom by an evil empire that dictates where I should buy my ebooks from or which devices I can use to read them. Of course this is not going to be an easy format war to settle…but my concern is that the camps in question are not thinking from a consumer perspective yet – they seem to be too busy working out their own business models. While I donot dispute the importance of business models, I still wish due importance be given to the greater (consumer) good.

  2. A good article which is slightly married by this statement: “Google’s effectively exclusive license to exploit that vast library commercially could be enormous competitive advantage over other e-book providers, including Amazon.”

    You are not the first publication to use the phrase “effectively exclusive” when reporting on this topic. I have seen other publications use that exact phrase, and it is highly misleading for readers. “Exclusive” means something to which nobody else has access. Statements such as these make readers think that Google is getting access to these books exclusively and that nobody else (like Amazon, etc.) will have access to them. It is making readers (and a few publishers and writers) panic, thinking that Google is getting some kind of monopoly rights. Instead of writing that Google gets effectively exclusive license, you should have clearly reported that Google is getting a license that any other publisher or store can also get. There is absolutely nothing preventing Amazon or Microsoft (who are incidentally litigating against Google) from doing similar scans of books and hosting them on their sites.

    1. I meant, “slightly marred”. Not, “slightly married”!

      1. I kind of liked the idea of being “slightly married” actually, but that’s another story. As for this story, I’m afraid I have to disagree that “There is absolutely nothing preventing Amazon or Microsoft (who are incidentally litigating against Google) from doing similar scans of books and hosting them on their sites.” There is nothing stopping Amazon or Microsoft other than the need to secure the rights to each individual work they scan. Only Google would get a automatic license to scan *any* orphan work under U.S. copyright because only Google is party to the negotiated settlement with the publishers. It is (or would be if approved) for all intents and purposes an exclusive blanket license. Also, just to clarify, Amazon and Microsoft aren’t actually litigating anything against Google. They’ve merely asked the court not to approve the proposed settlement in the litigation brought by publishers and the authors guild against Google.

  3. For e-Book Readers, the Price Is Not Right Thursday, September 3, 2009

    [...] Kindle has brought new price competition to the market. The launch of Sony’s $199 Reader and Interead’s $249 Cool-er prompted Amazon to drop the price of its introductory-level Kindle 2 to $299 from $359 within [...]

  4. What We’re Reading | On the Radar… Friday, September 4, 2009

    [...] out of a private litigation, the settlement only covers Google, meaning that – according to an analysis by Gigaom – they have de facto exclusive rights to these out-of-print books. So Amazon primes the market and [...]

  5. Cool-er Adds Google Books | Kindleberg Thursday, October 15, 2009

    [...] Google, on the other hand, continues to tie up device makers in its bid to colonize the entirety of the e-book industry. [...]

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