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Google Books, Amazon Kindle and ePub Publishers

Update: I just posted an analysis about how much Kindle is selling.

In the heat of every technology battle, experts on all sides tend to forget that the key to crowning a new displacement technology is popularity, not features. For that reason, I wrote a few months ago that publishers trying to establish an e-Publishing model need to adopt the unofficial anthem of the software industry, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." I've seen some elegant approaches to publishing eBooks, some going back more than a decade (on CD-ROM), but none of them ever developed the critical mass to create a defacto industry standard. And with all due respect to the International Digital Publishing Forum, ePub has yet to reach critical mass as well. While I think ePub will be with us for a while, thanks largely to publishers investing in the technology and tools before the real eBook winner was announced, but ePub may not make the final cut.

The reason for my skepticism about ePub is simple. Outside of publishing pundit and blogger circles, nobody cares about eBook standards. The vast majority of the future audience for eBooks just want the next Harry Potter equivalent to be readable on the thing they choose to read it on. Despite the number of people currently reading books on tiny phone screens, I personally don't believe pocket devices will be the eBook reader of choice for the long haul. I'm betting on larger screen devices, whether Kindles, Sony Readers, netbooks, or the super cheap full capability laptop behind door number three. If it wasn't for those bothersome small screens, I think that the PDF format would have won the eBook publishing wars already, and the new large screen Kindle with its PDF support is certainly going to ease the way for textbook publishers to adopt Kindle. And textbook publishing is nearly as important as trade publishing in terms of dollars.

Not long after I signed up with Google Books, I also signed up to allow them to sell the full text of my books as eBooks. Years went by with no movement, but Google finally announced last week that the eBook program will be live by the end of the year, and it looks like Google will deliver the eBooks to anything with an Internet connection. Since most of the books in their program are from scans or PDFs, it's hard to imagine that they are enthusiastic backers of ePub, but they haven't said anything to me about it one way or the other. Google eBooks and Amazon Kindle have gone together in my mind for some time now, and I've speculated that as Amazon moves into the eBook cataloging business, Google may move into print by partnering with a major POD provider. This would quickly make Google the first destination for printed out-of-print books.

So Amazon has a big Kindle that can handle PDFs and Google can take over the out-of-print market, but what does that have to do with the price of eBooks in Springfield? Those two examples are just the cherry on top. Amazon is already the world's biggest book retailer and the first place people go to look for books. They've been wise in creating a Kindle app for iPhone and will no doubt make sure to support any platform they view as necessary to maintain their position. In the end, it's not simply eBook sales or Kindle sales that Amazon is playing for, it's leverage with publishers. Amazon is playing for higher stakes with deeper pockets than any other player in the eBook game, and I don't see them rushing to adopt ePub support. An ominous sign for ePub is that rather than trashing their Kindles, fans are jumping through hoops to convert ePub docs for reading on Kindle. That's a sure sign that Kindle is popular and ePub is a stumbling block vs the other way around.

Currently, Google doesn't push Google Books results on their most valuable real estate, book results only show up if there isn't something more profitable to display. But when Google goes live with the ebook sales program, that will allow them to monetize those sales for dollars, rather than a few cents for a click on a related ad, and I expect book results with an effective eBook sell-through will take a place of pride on many Google results pages. Will that be enough to make Google the most popular eBook store in the world? Not initially, but if the program works well, trade publishers will welcome the Google program as a counterbalance to Amazon. Amazon pays just 35% of the retail price of an eBook to publishers, while the Google program (at least as offered back in March of 2006) pays 70% to the publishers. Unlike the Amazon Kindle deal, with Google, the publisher always sets the price.

All the work that went in the ePub standard, the committee meetings at conferences, the position papers, the compromises and consensus, that doesn't mean a thing to consumers. Strangely enough, despite all the time and money publishers have invested in ePub and e-Publishing consultants, it doesn't mean that much to them either. It comes down to markets and the bottom line. Amazon has created the premier marketplace for books, and they pay publishers in good hard cash. Google has created a huge online book repository and will soon be selling eBooks (and perhaps eventually reprints) and paying publishers even better. The International Digital Publishing Forum, the organization that promotes ePub, doesn't have a book marketing platform and doesn't pay publishers one red cent for participating. That makes ePub an expense rather than a profit center, and for me, it's not a necessary expense.

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