April 6, 2012

Google abandons indies again — but says they really mean it this time

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In one of the most muddled, disorganized, deceitful and cynical series of policy shifts in recent business history, Google has once again announced that it is ending its partnership selling ebooks with independent booksellers — except this time, the company says it really means it.

As Julie Bosman reports in a New York Times story,

Google said on Thursday it would abolish a program through which independent bookstores have been selling e-books, a blow to small booksellers that have benefited from the large and recognizable platform Google provides.

In a blog post, Scott Dougall, Google’s director for product management for digital publishing, said that the so-called reseller program, which allowed bookstores to offer e-books for sale through their Web sites, was not a success.

The program “has not gained the traction that we hoped it would, so we have made the difficult decision to discontinue it by the end of January next year,” Mr. Dougall wrote. “This change will help us focus on building the best e-books experience we can across hundreds of devices with millions of books. Books will continue to be a major content pillar alongside apps, music and movies in the Google Play store.”

Hmm, perhaps it was not a success because Google walked away from it several times, and proved fairly impossible for many publishers to work with — partly because, as one of our sources told us, the company had pulled most of its coders off the project shortly after launching it, putting them on “more important” projects. That may be because Google, like other giant retailers, realized there isn’t a lot of money in selling books, especially compared with the kind of money Google was making elsewhere.

And yet it was good publicity for them — after having been sued by the entire book industry over their attempt to privatize the public library system and ignore the laws of copyright — to appear to be friendly to indies and to care about books. And so they’ve walked away from the program, come back and denied they walked away, then walked away, too many times to count now, in a stunning display of corporate dishonesty and inconsistency.

Here’s a snippet of that amazing back and forth — as a MobyLives report in March tried to track it …

After launching its ebookstore with great ballyhoo, it then walked away from the program just weeks later … then came back … then walked away again … then said no we did that by accident we meant to not walk away and we’re not changing anything …. That was just last week.

Now, the company has announced, eh, it’s changing the store that it just said it wasn’t. It is, in fact, folding the ebookstore into Google Play, a portal that will also sell movies, music, and Android apps, and maybe audiobooks

Well, as Tim Carmody writes in a Wired report about this newest — and apparently final — development,

In the year since Judge Denny Chin invalidated Google’s agreement with the Authors’ Guild to display and sell digital editions of orphaned works, the towering monolith of search has been a sleeping giant in e-books. Still, every so often it tosses and turns, crushing villages and villagers caught in its slumbering shadow.

But you may ask yourself, if the program wasn’t working, why should Google be criticized for shutting it down, and why should the 350 bookseller who participate be upset?

Because any idiot should have seen this was a years-long education program for American who thought you could only buy books online at Amazon, for one thing. For another, as Emily Pullen of L.A.’s Skylight Books puts in eloquently in the Times report, ” just being able to sell e-books through Google was an advantage for many independent bookstores.” She tells the paper, “At this point, most indies weren’t able to make a lot of money selling e-books. But offering it was something that made us be able to give some of our customers something that they wanted and to be a part of some of these changes in technology.”

The American Booksellers Association released a statement from its CEO, Oren Teicher, saying

To say the least, we are very disappointed in Google’s decision, but it was not entirely unexpected … From the start, we have recognized certain realities of our working with Google. As an enormous, multinational corporation, Google has interests far beyond independent bookstores, and the book world at large, and, at times, it has lacked understanding of many basic principles of our industry.

But it was Tim Carmody in Wired who perhaps put it best:

From one point of view, this is a serious setback to small bookstores looking to maintain parity where book readership is increasingly digital (just check out this brand-new Pew Internet report) with competitors like Barnes & Noble and Amazon who can offer both print and digital books on their own platforms. One of Google’s virtues as far as booksellers were concerned was that it had no real stake one way or the other in sales of print books. The indie stores can replace Google, but probably not without climbing into bed with one of these print + digital superstores or teaming up with a much smaller e-book wholesaler, unless Apple swoops in to save the day.

Then again, users of Google Reader’s social features, Maps’ and Translate’s APIs, Gears, Wave, Labs, Android App Builder, and a dozen other programs Google’s shuttered in the Larry Page era in order to put “more wood behind fewer arrows” (like enhanced reality glasses) will be shocked! SHOCKED! to hear that an unloved and relatively unprofitable program on which a small number of users had staked a lot is being killed in order to focus on a new e-book storefront that still has a chance of achieving “Google scale.”

In other words, congratulations, bookstores! You just got Googlighted.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives

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