I met a few folks on my recent European travel who scoffed at the pervasive power of e-books as a replacement for the touchy-feely experience of holding a print book in their hands. “You can’t read an e-book in the bath,” one naysayer told me a few weeks back. To that romantic reader, I say, “Google has the answer for you.” With its eye on taking Amazon down a notch or two, Google is now in the print on demand business having forged an alliance with On Demand Books, the manufacturers of the Espresso Book Machine, a high-speed press that quickly creates paperbacks books…well… on demand.
In its deal, the books sell for a recommended $8 per, with On Demand receiving $1, Google receiving $1 and the retailer getting whatever is left over. Google will donate its $1 to charity, but if Google is the retailer (as it clearly intends), it can pocket the rest. But let’s be clear: this model will start off with the 2 million out-of-copyright books to which Google has access with the hopes that if/when the book settlement is finalized, commercial publishers will head Google’s way. At that point, the model will look vastly different if Google is the ecommerce partner (as opposed to Amazon, barnesandnoble.com, etc…). As stated in a previous post, Google aims to have its Google Checkout service become a major transactional component in future publishing opportunities. Can Google convince major publishers it has its heart in the right place or, more accurately, can Google convince publishers it is as better partner than Amazon.
There is no clear path here. Google could opt out of becoming a direct retailer and simply offer print-on-demand as an option to companies such as Sony who offers Google-scanned out-of-copyright books in .epub format via its electronic store. Again, another blow to Amazon who, to date, has only offered e-books in its proprietary .azw format. In working with Sony or any of the emerging e-book e-tailers (who generally offer books solely in .epub format) Google still could be the fulfillment agent and transaction clearinghouse. Also, it allows Google to gather that all-important consumer information on reading choices/habits. Marrying that data with other behavioral information pits Google against Amazon. Amazon has tried, in the past, to become a search provider (via A9) with little success.
Even with its murkiness, with this print-on-demand component two things are clear: the evolving mantra of “content over the device” is gaining traction, meaning consumers will have multiple options when making a book purchase and publishers, who are steadfast in maintaining a physical print channel, can do so in a cost-efficient way.