February 28, 2012

What Google’s eBookstore closures means for indies


Late last week came the news that Google was closing out an undisclosed number of its eBookstore affiliate partners. This is perhaps the beginning of the final chapter in the long and underwhelming tale of the Google eBookstore venture. It is a tale that would be comical if it were not for the role the internet giant was supposed to play in the lives of independent booksellers.

In a wonderful expose for Publishers Weekly, Flying Pig Bookstore owner Josie Leavitt rendered plain for all to see the confusing after-effects of Google’s decision to roll-up much of its eBook business. Leavitt writes:

I am a member of the American Booksellers Association, but I don’t have my website through them. I have a Booksite website. I had to apply to become an affiliate of Google to be able to sell e-books on my site. I applied several months ago and was approved within a day. From that moment on we began to educate our customers how they could buy e-books from us. This has been a slow process. And now, finally every day, someone asks how they can buy e-books on our website. Sales, admittedly, have been lackluster, but these things take time to grow.

Now it seems we are not going to be given the chance.

We can empathize with Leavitt’s frustration. About a year ago we launched our Digital Direct program, which utilizes QR codes to create bookstore specific shelf-talkers that connect in-store digital consumers with the bookstore’s online eBook sales channels. That is to say: Connects them with Google. The program worked fairly well, with bookstores seeing a handful of extra sales, most of which they might have missed out on otherwise. We spent time and money on the program, just like Leavitt and her business partner surely spent time and money on their e-commerce site.

And then Google pulls the plug. From Leavitt’s PW article we discover the reason:

Google’s reason for dropping is couched in these very vague sentences: “We are constantly evaluating our Google eBook affiliate program, searching for the best mechanisms to create value for our partners and users. With our most recent evaluation, we’ve decided to narrow the scope of the program to a smaller number of partners to create a better experience for our customers. ”

So, apparently, Google doesn’t view us as being capable of creating a better experience for their shoppers. I have not been told if I can work toward providing a better experience, nor do I know what that experience is. I am frustrated and pissed.

The ABA was looking for a silver bullet for e-commerce and bought into Google’s program. It might have all worked too, if Google had been allowed to utilize the copyrighted material from its scanning project. It wasn’t allowed to though, and ever since Judge Denny Chin ruled against them Google has left its eBookstore in the half light of beta.

Or worse — with Google pulling the plug now, many  indie booksellers will be left in the dark.


Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.