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Posted at 10:08 AM ET, 12/ 6/2010

Google launches e-book store (updated with first-look review)

By Rob Pegoraro

Kindle, meet competition: Google just opened an electronic-book store that offers titles in formats compatible with Web browsers, Apple and Android mobile devices and most other e-book readers -- but not Amazon's line.

Google eBooks (which the company referred to as Google Editions during its development) will stock more than 3 million books. Most will be free, public-domain titles, but that inventory will include "hundreds of thousands of books you can pay money for," director of engineering James Crawford said in a phone interview Friday.

google_ebook_page-turn.png

You'll be able to browse, buy and read titles through a standard Web browser at books.google.com/ebooks or through new software for the iPad, iPhone and iPod touch (as seen in the screen grab here) and for devices running Google's Android operating system. You can also read Google e-book downloads on devices supporting Adobe's "digital rights management" usage-control software -- a requirement that Amazon's Kindle devices don't meet but which dozens of less-popular devices, including Sony's Reader series and Barnes & Noble's Nook models, do.

Most large publishers will be able to set their own prices. Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" and George W. Bush's "Decision Points" go for $9.99 each, the same as at Amazon's Kindle Store. The somewhat restrictive agreement I cited in a post last week, which specified maximum e-book pricing relative to print and offered a relatively low share of revenue, applies only to smaller, "non-agency" publishers. But Amanda Edmonds, director of strategic partnerships for Google's e-books store, said most such publishers can also apply existing publishing contracts.

Shoppers can also buy from separate e-book stores running Google's software. For example, Portland, Ore.-based Powell's Books will sell Google eBooks.

Google e-book publishers -- about 4,000 at the start -- will be able to opt out of DRM on individual titles or on everything they sell, a slightly more liberal approach than that of other large e-book stores. I expect that most mainstream publishers will do the "safe," conservative thing and limit the value of purchases with DRM-enforced restrictions, but I can only hope that some of them will learn from the example of publishers who do fine without DRM.

Allowing reading over the Web -- what Crawford called "the philosophy we've taken of buy everywhere read everywhere" -- also sets this venture apart. He said Google's Web-based reader application will be able to show a book's original fonts and graphics, but it won't support offline reading at the start. "That's high up our priority list," Crawford said.

Other promised features didn't make the cut for the launch. The company held up support for copy and paste and printing, for example, after too many publishers balked. Highlighting and annotation features won't happen until later. The same goes for text-to-speech capabilities that would allow Google's reader programs to read a book aloud.

Google's reader applications, Web and otherwise, will sync your progress across devices and platforms. Its book format, unlike that of Amazon, will also feature consistent page numbers.

It's important to remember that although this is the seemingly unstoppable Google we're talking about, the Mountain View, Calif., company doesn't actually have that much experience selling directly to consumers. One of its few earlier ventures in that category, an online video store it launched in 2006, lasted only about a year and a half before Google shuttered it -- and had to give customers refunds after initially telling them, Sorry, once this closes, your DRMed purchases won't play.

Will this new venture fare any better? Take a look at Google's Web store, then come back in a few hours to see my initial evaluation.

6:00 p.m. That review awaits after the jump. Short version: "Meh."

After trying out Google eBooks in two Web browsers, three mobile devices (an iPad 3G, an iPhone 4 and a Samsung Galaxy Tab) and one e-book reader (Barnes & Noble's NookColor), I can only think this store could use another run through the typewriter.

Browsing and searching through Google's e-bookstore is no problem, and it seems to stock the same new titles at the same prices as elsewhere. But its pricing and selection didn't beat the Kindle Store's in a search for three older, Washington-related books.

(6:44 p.m. Nor does it indicate if a title is afflicted with DRM--a remarkably unhelpful move for readers who want to know they can do what they want with their purchase.)

Christopher Buckley's Thank You For Smoking costs $9.99 from Google but $8.69 on Amazon. My friend Robert Schlesinger's White House Ghosts goes for $13.99, the same as Amazon's Kindle price--and $1.30 more than what Amazon charges for a hardcover copy. Zachary Schrag's excellent history of Metro, The Great Society Subway, is already overpriced for the Kindle at $16.50, but Google asks $17.60 for a version, optimistically labeled "Better for larger screens," that only offers scanned-in images of pages.

google_ebook_web_reader.png

You can download a free sample of a book, a feature I used to grab the first few chapters of Hillenbrand's Unbroken for reading in Google's Web-reader interface. As you can see in the screengrab at left, it's a clean, simple presentation. If your browser has a full-screen mode to block out the usual desktop interruptions, you can have a reasonably distraction-free reading experience.

You can choose from among five fonts in the standard "flowing text" mode or switch to "scanned pages" to see the book as it appears in print--with slightly blurrier text in new titles and a noisier presentation in old ones. A free, public-domain copy of Alexis de Toqueville's Democracy in America shows underlining from the used copy Google scanned.

What the screengrab doesn't show you is how Google has coded this system to function unlike a regular page. You can't interact with the text in any way, not even to right-click on the page. Attempting to print it yields a piece of paper showing only the header at the top of the page--though a standard screen capture gets you a printable image.

Then I switched to Google's iOS and Android apps--and was puzzled to see the former offer more features than the latter. The Android program offered fewer font choices (four, compared to seven) than the iPad and iPhone apps and--of all the things for Google to leave out--lacked the iOS release's search function.

Finally, I downloaded PDF and ePub-format copies of Alice in Wonderland, one of the three public-domain titles that every Google Books buyer gets for free, to inspect on a Barnes & Noble NookColor. The PDF was unreadable--I couldn't even flip from page to page and its illustrations were replaced by empty red squares--while the ePub looked fine, aside from too-large images.

Had I bought a title off Google to move to the B&N device, I would have been subjected to a fussy file-transfer procedure, required by Google's Adobe-supplied DRM, that involves installing a copy of Adobe Digital Editions, opening the book in that free program, then employing that program to sideload the book on the Nook.

No thanks. If I wanted to be reminded about why users justifiably resent DRM, I'd rather read a book about the record labels' failed adoption of it. And, given the issues I see in Google eBooks so far, I might be happier getting that book at a library.

By Rob Pegoraro  | December 6, 2010; 10:08 AM ET
Categories:  E-books, Gadgets  
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Comments

Why would I use that on my NOOK? It looks like a lot more trouble than just buying from Barnes & Noble, and more expensive, too!

Posted by: thomasmc1957 | December 6, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

I can't imagine trying to read a book on my phone

Posted by: fedssocr | December 6, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

I read e-books on my iPod Touch frequently. It's not a phone, but it's like the iPhone without the phone capabilities. Works just fine for me, and I like the portability. I usually use the Stanza app, sometimes Kindle.

Still, I have no use for Google's e-books at this time. I can get free Gutenberg books for the Stanza quite easily, and I don't want to be limited to having to read online. I *might* read free books that way (though I probably wouldn't bother), but not books I paid for. I want those available whether I'm online or not.

Rob, maybe it's a technicality, but I don't consider something a "download," as you referred to Google's e-books, unless I can actually download it onto my device (computer, iTouch, etc.). If I have to stay online to read it or view it or listen to it, that's not what I consider a download.

Posted by: moxilator | December 6, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Now IF publishers realize they can sell more if they keep prices low. Low prices will help to prevent copying for most readers. That will eliminate the need for DRM or any variant of and hopefully make it easy for a buyer to download on one machine and read on another.

Posted by: gmclain | December 7, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

So if I understand Google books properly you would not be able to read any books while flying unless the airline offered wifi. Sort of defeats the advantage of taking your entire library with you on business or vacation. Or is there a way to temporarily download a book to your reader?

Posted by: fkohn | December 8, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

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