May 11, 2010, 8:35 AM — Google Editions, Google's digital book service, seems to be gathering momentum. It was only last week that The Wall Street Journal reported that Google would start selling e-books in June or July of this year. At that time the Journal said, "Publishers have yet to publicly commit to participate in the service but Google isn't expected to run into much trouble getting them to join."
Yesterday Japan Today posted a story claiming that Google has "clinched the support of almost all publishers in the United States" and that the number of authors and publishers who have agreed to participate have topped 25,000. The story claims that, between these arrangements and books with expired copyrights, Google Editions will offer over 4 million titles. Japan Today cites "company officials" but offers no further attribution.
This is all very interesting, but am I the only one confused about what exactly Google Editions is? If you head to http://www.google.com/books you can read a wide variety of public domain materials, but most of these are scanned images of actual books. Only the "Classics" section offers downloadable e-books (in ePub format).
Going back to The Wall Street Journal piece, this passage is troubling:
While Mr. Palma didn't go into details, users of Google Editions would be able to read books from a web browser—meaning that the type of e-reader device wouldn't matter. The company also could build software to optimize reading on certain devices like an iPhone or iPad but hasn't announced any specific plans.
Does this mean when the service launches the only way we'll be able to read the books we've purchased from Editions will be in a browser? That would be an awful decision on Google's part. In my limited testing (limited because the experience was so unpleasant) reading an e-book in a web browser pales in comparison to reading one in software dedicated to displaying books. Additionally it'd mean that you'd have to be online whenever you wanted to read your library of books.
On the one hand, I can't believe Google can be that out of touch with the e-reading experience. On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine they'll have 4 million books ready to go in ePub (or any other established) format in the next months. Scanning in pages of old books is one thing. Running those scans through OCR software to get a clean digital edition is another. This one is a puzzle, to be sure.
I can't help but feel conflicted about Google Editions. More competition normally makes things better, cheaper and easier for consumers, but that hasn't seemed to be the case in the e-book arena, where too many proprietary formats vie for our attention. Will Google Editions add another layer of confusion to the e-book ecosystem, or will they somehow wind up acting as the great equalizer? Only time will tell.