Selling e-books is one of the few growth industries to be found these days, and the latest bigfoot to enter the field of that battle is Google.
Earlier this month, the search engine that keyworded the world debuted its latest enterprise, Google eBooks. There are two components: an e-bookstore and a reader app, both of which can be used on almost any device with an Internet connection.
Unlike Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, which each sell proprietary e-readers (Kindle and Nook, respectively), Google isn't going into the device market. Instead, it's offering a platform to buy (or download free) and read books that can be used on a wide range of smart phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers.
I still read most books in ink-on paper format, but I read e-books too, and I read a lot of newspapers and magazines in digital form. So I gave Google eBooks a spin to see how it stood up to the existing e-reader options. Verdict: Google eBooks needs some work.
I use an iPad rather than a dedicated e-reader, so I installed the free Google eBooks for iPad from the app store and went shopping.
The Google eBookstore (books.google.com/ebooks) shares the ubiquitous clean Google design style but seems a bit bare bones compared to Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble's online bookstore. Both of those offer a lot of content beyond the books themselves, including published and reader reviews, author pages, countless iterations on the bestseller list, links, discussion forums, and more. Google's store, of course, might develop that content over time.
I quickly discovered that, for a bookstore created by the company that birthed the planet's dominant search engine, Google eBooks is not easy to search. It doesn't even offer advanced searching.
Just as a test, I entered the words “Thomas Pynchon Crying” in the search box. That got me at least 10 pages with 60 books each, but after scanning the first five pages and not finding the book I was looking for, I gave up. Typing the same terms into the
search box at Amazon.com got me Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 as the first hit.
Like the other e-bookstores, Google's offers plenty of free books, including many classics, that are now out of copyright. Google lays claim to the most, though, with more than 2 million free titles available. Many of them you might want, like Oprah's latest book club picks, Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities; others, like the 500-page Sanitary Entomology, published in 1921, might not be so popular.
As for books for sale, Google seems to offer a range similar to other online booksellers, with some variations in price. I bought Thomas Powers' just-published nonfiction book The Killing of Crazy Horse for $14.29 and discovered I'd saved a bit over the prices on Amazon ($16.20) and Barnes & Noble ($16.50), and that Apple's iBookstore didn't have the book at all.
But for many new books and bestsellers, prices were similar across the board, and no one e-bookseller seems to have a low-price monopoly. (The Google eBookstore so far does not offer newspapers or magazines.)
Reading the e-book of The Killing of Crazy Horse was similar in many ways to my previous digital reading experiences. The type was crisp black on white; there's also a “night” option that's white on black, making for less of a flashlight effect while reading in bed. I could adjust font, text size, and line spacing for easy reading. The book includes maps and black-and-white photos, and those were clearly reproduced in the e-book. Google uses cloud computing to store your books, so you can close a book on one device and open it to the same page on another, a handy tool.
But Google eBooks lacks a couple of extremely useful options that Kindle, Nook, and some other e-readers offer. You can search a Google eBook, but you cannot highlight passages or make notes, nor is there a built-in dictionary. For me, those are major flaws.
Also, the Google eBooks for iPad app doesn't allow rotation of the image. Normally, I can read a document in portrait mode, which gives me a single large page, or landscape mode, which gives me two small ones. I often use landscape because the cover I have on my iPad props it up like an easel, so I can read hands-free. My Google e-books (I also downloaded a couple of freebies) refused to rotate, staying stubbornly in portrait mode.
Google is touting the “openness” of being able to use its platform on almost any device with an Internet connection — you can even read Google e-books on a Nook, and you can read the free books from Google on a Kindle — and that's a good thing.
But it's not a new thing. I don't have a Kindle or a Nook, but I have Kindle and Nook apps on my iPad that allow me to buy and read books from Amazon and Barnes & Noble just as easily as I can from Google (and I can take notes in their books).
And when it comes to opening up the e-reading experience, Barnes & Noble has beaten Amazon and Google in a couple of ways. If you're reading on the new NookColor, you can post a status or quote from the book directly to social networks Facebook and Twitter without leaving your page.
What's more, NookColor breaks the barrier that has long irked e-book readers: Its LendMe app allows you to lend books free for 14 days to friends who have the same device.
Google eBooks does have one feature I really like. Thanks to a deal worked out with the American Booksellers Association, the trade organization of independent booksellers, you can buy Google eBooks through the Web site of your favorite local indie bookstore, and that bookstore gets a cut.
That's nice, but it would be even nicer if Google eBooks linked to those stores from its site.