The Google eBookstore is the most recent entrant in the crowded ebook market, taking its place amongst such high profile rivals as Amazon's Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble's Nook store and Apple's iBookstore. But while the Google eBookstore certainly has a "Googly" design aesthetic, is it enough to convert ebook lovers to Google customers?
If you've downloaded an e-book in the last year, the Google eBookstore will look very familiar. You'll find a list of bestsellers, some graphics promoting different books, and a number of categories of e-books for your enjoyment. Ebook pricing is in line with the emerging industry standard, ranging from free classics to about $10 for bestsellers and a couple of bucks north or south of that for back catalogue books.
Each book's entry on the eBookstore showcases the cover, the author, a synopsis, reviews and some bibliographic data on the book, including page count. You can view a sample of the book right in your browser, or click the "Buy now" button to purchase the ebook.
When purchasing a book, either paid or free, you'll need a Google account, though you can browse the offers without logging in. Once you've decided to buy a book the payment is handled by Google Checkout.
Reading Google ebooks
After buying an ebook (I bought The Poe Shadow) it shows up in your library, which Google hosts "in the cloud" (ie on some server deep in the bowels of a data centre somewhere). Google will host an unlimited number of Google ebooks for you in your library, and you can group them together on virtual 'shelves,' though I couldn't actually figure out how to move an ebook from one shelf to another.
The library serves as the hub to your e-reading wheel, with a number of reading apps acting as the spokes. Google released a native Google Books app for the iPhone and iPad, as well as one for Android devices (the app is displayed as simply 'Books' on Android devices).
All the apps (web, iPhone, iPad and Android) share the same somewhat limited feature set. You can control a number of text settings (font size, typeface, line spacing) as well as justification (left- or fully-justified). Full text search is also standard, as is the most intriguing feature: scanned pages.
Thanks to the efforts of Google Books (not to be confused with the Google eBookstore), Google has scanned a large number of physical books. Google leverages this digital asset by including an option to display the scanned-in pages of a book instead of "flowing text," which is the default.
Google did give both the iOS and Android native apps some special features of their own. The iOS apps include a 3D page turn animation (which you can turn off) while the Android app has an option to set the brightness of the screen independently of the rest of the phone.
Sadly, both the Android and iOS apps share another "feature" in common: slow load times. I encountered a little spinning loading icon a fair number of times on the iPad, iPhone and a Droid X. Also missing from the mobile apps: landscape mode. You can only read ebooks in portrait mode on these devices.
No matter which app you use to read your Google ebook with, your current place is automatically saved and synced across the various applications. There is no way to bookmark any other location in an ebook, nor can you highlight text, add notes or jump directly to a certain page number. For the last, you have to use the timeline at the bottom of the screen and scrub to the page number you're after, a workable solution.
I don't think "open" means what you think it does
Google touts their eBookstore as "open" because you can read the ebooks on a number of devices, including dedicated ebook readers. This is true, and I was able to load "The Poe Shadow" onto my Nook. However, what Google isn't so loudly proclaiming is why this is possible; the eBookstore's titles use Adobe's ebook Digital Rights Management.
In order to load a Google ebook onto a supported reader (the Nook and the Sony Reader are on the list, the Amazon Kindle isn't) you have to first install Adobe Digital Editions onto your computer (this runs on both Mac and PC since it is an Adobe AIR application).
After downloading Adobe Digital Editions you need to sign up for an Adobe ID. Once you have that all sorted you can download a copy of your Google ebook as either an ePub or PDF wrapped in a delicious coating of DRM. Once you have the file downloaded to your computer, add it to Adobe Digital Editions so it can authorize the book for your device.
In my testing I wasn't able to get Adobe Digital Editions to recognise my ebook until I restarted, at which point five copies of the book showed up in my library. I was able to transfer one of them onto my Nook (via USB) and read the ebook without incident. Keep in mind, though, that ebooks read in this manner will not sync their current location with Google.
Let a thousand Google eBookstores bloom
The most interesting aspect of the Google eBookstore aren't the apps, or the web reader. Google has partnered with a number of indie book stores, including Powell's and Alibris, to sell ebooks from the Google eBookstore directly from their own websites. An intriguing idea to someone like myself, who feels a twinge of guilt every time I buy an ebook when I could be supporting my local independent bookstore.
Interestingly, the independent booksellers prices don't seem to match those of Google itself. Take, for example, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, part of the very popular Stieg Larsson series of books. You can purchase this ebook for $9.99 from the Google eBookstore, the Kindle store and the Nook store.
Now let's take a look at how much three independent booksellers are charging for the same ebook, via their partnership with the Google eBookstore: Alibris will sell it to you for $18.17, Powell's would like $24.81 and Joseph Fox Bookshop (a small indie in my hometown of Philadelphia) wants $27.95.
Despite the wild price fluctuations, I purchased a Google ebook from Powell's and it was a painless process. I selected the ebook I wanted, added it to my cart and checked out. At the point of checkout my Powell's account was linked to my Google account (took less than a minute) and I was charged for the book.
The ebook appeared in my Google ebook library, hosted by Google, and Powell's earned some money. Not a bad system, assuming the indies can figure out a good pricing scheme.
The Google eBookstore attempts to be an agnostic platform for ebooks: buy your ebooks and read them whenever you like (as long as it isn't on a Kindle). It is a good start and an important vision, but not fully baked as of yet. At the moment I see very little reason to use the Google eBookstore if you own a competing store's hardware reader, or have a significant investment in one store's ebooks.