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The ABC’s of GBS: Part 2
Got Discoverability? Now what?

Consumer choice and publisher dilemma in the era of Google Book Search

By Evan Schnittman

Google announced plans a few months ago to roll out “100% online access” in Google Book Search (GBS).

Currently, Google (and Microsoft with its Live Book search) have full book contents on their servers which are indexed for the purpose of discoverability (See the ABC’s of GBS – Part 1)

Google’s plan to launch 100% access online is a potential tipping point for digital publishing. While the debate over the efficacy of GBS and LBS as book marketing programs will carry on for some time, 100% online access may change how publishers create and package content, how consumers view and purchase content, and challenge the very nature of “print first” pricing and selling.

I realize the paragraph above reads like every other blogger and pundit who has screamed “print is dead!” However this is absolutely NOT what I am saying or implying. In fact, my sense is that 100% online access will be a success in driving print (or ebook) sales more than anything because reading immersive materials in an online environment is generally a terrible experience.

However, the potential for a tipping point in how consumers find and use book content on the internet is racing toward us at great speed. Yesterday it was only possible to search on the metadata that book publishers provided to different sources, mostly retailers and libraries and a few organizations such as OCLC’s WorldCat. Today it is possible to search the full contents of books on the open internet through GBS and LBS, see up to 20%, and then opt to buy the print version through a retailer or the publisher.

Tomorrow, one will be able to find a book on GBS and buy (or rent) 100% access to the content at any time. Could instant gratification be the key to the Internet age? Could this be the holy grail of the publishing industry? If so, what are the issues and costs to achieve this Holy Grail? How do we best compete in the Internet trifecta of search, browse, buy?

Consider this – a consumer has found a book through GBS or LBS and the full content is available instantly, for a price.

But what price? Should a publisher establish the prices? Should Google establish a specific pricing policy? What should the relationship be between print pricing and 100% online access pricing? Should the access be sold in perpetuity or should this be done on a timed basis – or both? Is this a sale for the publisher or should it be considered licensing income?

These questions are neither academic nor is there consensus on the answers – which is in part, perhaps, why Google has announced this program and not yet rolled it out. Pricing will surely be one of the most complicated issues for publishers as very few of us have experience with business models that offer content access, not ownership.

Even “perpetual access,” which in Google’s model means to own it as long as Google supports it to its users is completely different than our normal sales model where we get money and the customer walks away with the asset forever (I assume Google intends to support this forever but forever is a long time in Internet land). Now throw into the mix temporal access – in effect a subscription to a set amount of content for a period of time – and more issues arise. Should a one month rental be valued less than perpetual access? Logically the answer is yes – but how much less if the content is designed for short term use like, for example, a travel guide?

Defining value for access cannot be done in a vacuum – it must consider the other packages delivering the same content. If paperbacks are indexed off the hardcover price, should online access be indexed off the paperback or the hardcover? What if there is an ebook version?

Many publishers have created “digital list prices” for ebooks. Since an ebook is a downloaded and “owned” asset, it would follow that the price for 100% online access could be different.

Currently, Amazon offers a version of online access that is sold only as an add-on to the purchase of a book. The cost is about 20% of the print price on top of the book purchase. Amazon has stayed away from offering this as a stand alone business for many, if not all of the reasons cited above. I am sure Amazon’s discussions with publishers touched on all of these issues and each had its own unique view on how it should work.

So online access purchasing, like all new business models, will be a complicated minefield to navigate. However, in the end, so much depends on the reaction of the consumer to the notion of reading immersive content online. We may find that reading full books online will be predictably unpopular but that having online access to information within books to search across, and use bits of for a wide variety of reasons as one’s own personal database, may make a lot of sense.

Evan’s PictureEvan Schnittman is OUP’s Vice President of Business Development and Rights for the Academic and USA Divisions. His career in publishing spans nearly 20 years and includes positions as varied as Executive Vice President at The Princeton Review and Professor at New York University’s Center for Publishing. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children.

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