Amazon checkmated

Google appears to be throwing down the gauntlet in the e-book market. In discussions with publishers at the annual BookExpo convention in New York over the weekend, Google signaled its intent to introduce a program that would enable publishers to sell digital versions of their newest books direct to consumers through Google. The move would pit Google against Amazon.com, which is seeking to control the e-book market with the versions it sells for its Kindle reading device. Google’s move is likely to be welcomed by publishers who have expressed concerns about the possibility that Amazon will dominate the market for e-books with its aggressive pricing strategy. Amazon offers Kindle editions of most new best-sellers for $9.99, a price far lower than the typical $26 at which publishers sell new hardcovers. In early discussions, Google has said it would allow publishers to set a suggested list price, but that Google would ultimately set consumer prices.

“Clearly, any major company coming into the e-book space, providing that we are happy with the pricing structure, the selling price and the security of the technology, will be a welcome addition,” said David Young, chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes blockbuster authors like James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer.

Google’s e-book retail program would be separate from the company’s settlement with authors and publishers over its book-scanning project, under which Google has scanned more than seven million volumes from several university libraries. A majority of those books are out of print.

The settlement, which is the focus of a Justice Department inquiry about the antitrust implications and is also subject to court review, provides for a way for Google to sell digital access to the scanned volumes.

And Google has already made its 1.5 million public-domain books available for reading on mobile phones as well as the Sony Reader, the Kindle’s largest competitor.

Under the new program, publishers give Google digital files of new and other in-print books. Already on Google, users can search up to about 20 percent of the content of those books and can follow links from Google to online retailers like Amazon.com and the Web site of Barnes & Noble to buy either paper or electronic versions of the books. But Google is now proposing to allow users to buy those digital editions direct from Google.
Google has discussed such plans with publishers before, but it has now committed the company to going live with the project by the end of 2009.

Although Google generates a majority of its revenue from ad sales on its search pages, it has previously charged for content. Three years ago, it opened a Google video store, and sold digital recordings of NBA games as well as episodes of television shows like “CSI” and “The Brady Bunch.” This year, Google said it might eventually charge for premium content on YouTube.

Turvey said Google’s program would allow consumers to read books on any device with Internet access, including mobile phones, rather than being limited to dedicated reading devices like the Amazon Kindle.

He said that publishers would be allowed to set list prices but that Google would price the e-books for consumers. Turvey said that Google would probably allow publishers to charge consumers the same price for digital editions as they do for new hardcover versions. He said Google would reserve the right to adjust prices that it deemed “exorbitant.”

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