Why the Google Ebooks Launch is Way More Important Than You Might Think

[pullshow]We are suffering under an avalanche of books. And I don’t choose the word “avalanche” capriciously. I mean it. I think for all of us, there’s at least some anxiety to the book buying experience. That is, the wanting-then-searching-then-finding-then-choosing-then-buying-then-reading experience. The book business is complicated industry, and its marketing aspects might be the most difficult to understand and the most important to a satisfying user experience. How do you find the book you’re looking for? How do you know it’s the best available text for your purposes? (Is it the most recent? Best researched? Most entertaining? It it written in the style you’re after? How does it compare to others like it? Is it a good price?) And another question, what I think is actually the most important part of reading as a culturally-productive social activity, is the experience of finding the “right” book that you weren’t even looking for.

Amazon is really good at everything I’ve just mentioned. Better than anyone else for the last 15 years. That’s what’s made them so successful. But that success is based on two factors: reduced distribution costs because of the efficiencies of scale, and access to a database that allows them to be very smart about creating the illusion that they’re offering you the cheapest, most relevant books in response to your search.

Partial screen-shot of Google's Ebook Storefront interface.Their advantages in distribution and pricing of physical books is still unchallenged. Barnes and Noble has the advantage of brick-and-mortar stores which appeal to people who want a more tactile shopping experience, but those stores are as much a fiscal liability as they are an advantage. More importantly, though, is the recent trend over the last several years toward ebooks. And Amazon has dominated that landscape by leveraging its dominant position in the physical book market. Not only has Amazon been the most visible and most trafficked option for buying books of any sort, they’ve also had access to the most comprehensive information. That is, they’ve had by far the best database of consumers’ book-buying-and-reading habits.

But Google is going to change all that. I’m suggesting that Google already has as a good a database as Amazon for ebook sales. That would be wrong. Even if they did have that database, they wouldn’t have Amazon’s experience or market share to know how to take advantage of it. But that database and market experience are the only two things Amazon has going for it, and those will likely evaporate eventually. Here’s why…

Google can connect its ebook store to almost anything you do on the web. It’s ubiquitous. Anything you search for, Google can suggest an ebook. If you’re looking up information on Spielberg films, it can suggest which ebooks might help you in that experience. Looking for information on training your dog? No matter what you’re looking for, Google can suggest a book or even user-generated reading lists on the subject. This is the exact function Google has always been designed to do. Connecting people with the information they want. But up until now, that information has been largely limited to websites. Read: information that is often relatively shallow compared that the sort of information traditionally found in long-form, print books. Could Google Ebooks make the web a richer place to find information? You could argue that Amazon already made this available. Sure. But that used to require a relatively circuitous path, via Amazon’s pages (not its database), that would then require an entirely new search within Amazon’s database. [pullthis]Google Ebooks could facilitate a much more seamless relationship between the web, apps, and ebooks.[/pullthis]

My second point is related to the first point. Amazon is great at suggesting a book when it know the book you’re already interested it. And a large part of its business strategy has been to extend this database-driven, suggestion-retailing model beyond the relationships between books. Now when you’re shopping for a book on landscaping, Amazon is particularly good at recommending a hedge-trimmer or a DVD from HGTV. This is one of the reasons I love Amazon so much. They understand how to make my life more efficient. They’ve learned those techniques by keeping track of buying habits. Google has the ability to take this same retailing concept to the next magnitude of scale because they easily have the best databases and best information processing track record on the planet. It’s not even close.

For now, Google doesn’t really know what it’s doing in terms of making an intuitive buying experience, but it’s going to learn very, very quickly. And as it does. It’s going to be extremely good for the quality of content we encounter everyday on the web, and we’re going to find that our experience of buying and reading books, albeit ebooks, will be better than ever.