Google jumps into the e-reader game

On July 17, Google and Target are introducing the Iriver Story HD, a $139 e-reader. And the more I think about it, the more I think Google is really serious about being a player in this space. The analysts who are dismissing it as a me-too, too-late product miss one key thing.

They’re marketing this differently. Every other e-reader is marketed as ” 1 (or 2) million books available, with hundreds of thousands of free books.” This one is the opposite: 3 million free books available, with hundreds of thousands of for-pay titles.

I predict the freebies will pull people in. Everyone, even people who don’t know me or a thing about me, wants to talk to me about e-readers lately. People really want to talk to me about them if they know I’m a published author. And many of them tell me they just read the free e-books, unless they get a gift certificate or feel like treating themselves.

I suspect Amazon is counting these freebies as sales, and that’s why they say e-books are outselling print books. That’s just my suspicion. But if there’s anything to it, Google has a big-time advantage because they have (easily) 10 times the number of free books available. Most people won’t care about the overwhelming majority of them, but all it takes is a few.

I’m automatically interested because I want an e-reader that will let me read the obscure stuff Google’s been digitizing. I have a thing for old genealogies and turn-of-the-previous-century toymaking books, and Google has lots of them. If I’m going to buy an e-reader, I’m going to buy the one that lets me read Making Tin Can Toys by Edward Thatcher, published in 1919, forgotten for decades, and digitized by Google a few years ago. I can read F. Scott Fitzgerald novels (in or out of copyright) on anything.

And since Google serves up its freebies in PDF form, that gives me confidence that their reader will display PDFs correctly, which is something existing readers sometimes struggle to do. I have a small library of my own PDFs as well. And most technically minded people have one too, or a source of them–current and recent versions of Open Office and Microsoft Office can convert any Word document into a PDF. You bet I’d like to be able to carry around my personal notes from the field.

The device is priced just like the competing e-ink devices, and for the money they give you a higher-resolution display. At $139, it either has a thin profit margin or it’s a loss leader, and Google isn’t counting on immediately making up the difference by selling current books for it. They’re pricing it to compete, and they’re flaunting the number of free e-books you can read on it. I think they’re trying to muscle their way into the #3 or #2 spot in the market quickly, then sell the installed base to publishers. Amazon had 58% of the market (as of last year) but Barnes & Noble is outselling the Kindles it this year, thanks to the Color Nook. Google can compete as long as the price and feature set are competitive. Perhaps they’ll release a color e-reader, or perhaps they’re content just to let people use Android tablets as e-readers. And if Android and Gmail are any indication, Google is fine with being #2 or #3 in its secondary markets.

And I like the current emphasis on free books, which will lead to questions about the public domain, and why copyrights used to expire and now they don’t. And that may lead to some productive discussions. It will also encourage people to read classic works, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

I plan to look into this further–a colleague asked me a bunch of really good questions about e-readers yesterday, and I’m still gathering answers–but I think Google may have a winner here. And if they have this available for $99 come Christmas, I don’t think they’ll be able to keep up with demand.

2 thoughts on “Google jumps into the e-reader game

  • July 13, 2011 at 10:05 am
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    I’d KILL to get my hands on some of the old, obscure stuff which Google has digitized over the years!

  • July 13, 2011 at 9:17 pm
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    I’ll have more on this in a day or two, but if you want a sneak peek, openlibrary.org has converted a lot of that Google content into compatible formats for the other e-readers.

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