How the Hell Can Google Save Indie Bookstores?

The latest strange twist in the e-book saga comes from the still-mysterious Google Books project which theNew York Times tells us will leverage the nation’s 1,400 independent bookstores to break into the e-book business. (You can’t make this stuff up!) It would be nice to know if indie stores have much in the way of online traffic that would make them influential in the e-book market.

But the meat of the story isn’t in the headline. Rather, it’s in the later assertion that Google is promoting its e-book service as agnostic on devices:

Here’s what the Times says in today’s story:

Google is promoting its e-book plan as a fundamentally different and more “open” alternative to its rivals’ stores. Though it will act as a retailer and sell books from its own site, it will also behave like a wholesaler and allow independent bookstores and other partners to sell its e-books on their own sites.

People who buy Google e-books will not be locked into any particular reading devices or book formats, the company said. Books bought from Apple’s iBookstore, by contrast, can be read only on Apple devices.

“I don’t think anyone who has bought an e-reader in the last several years has really intended to only buy their digital books from one provider for life,” said Tom Turvey, Google’s director of strategic partnerships, who heads the Google Editions project.

Now, let’s not be dismissive of Google’s entry into e-books. Its overwhelming position in search gives it a huge advantage in satisfying demand, by making it effortless to convert curiosity into commerce. And the Google brand offers a big canopy to secure users who will want to store their purchases in Google’s billowing cloud.

The question that raises is whether Google can use its brand strength to drive its e-book business without having a device of its own. In that sense, Turvey seems confused about how the developing e-books business works.

What we’ve already seen is that buyers flock to a device that is attached to an established and trustworthy brand. No-name readers like Irex and Plastic Logic have been still-born; brand-name devices from Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble have been hits.

Following that logic, it doesn’t seem likely that consumers care much about having device freedom. Most seem to recognize that the cloud service is persistent but the device is transient. How long do any of us expect to own an e-reader? Longer than we’ll own our current cellphones? And when we upgrade, we know that our content will have to migrate with us.

In that sense, Google seems to be offering the e-book version of cell-number portability. It’s a nice option to have (the ability to move your library to a new device), but not really one that seems to drive purchasing decisions. (Otherwise, we’d probably see more emphasis placed on the open e-pub format that already exists.)

When Google’s e-book store finally arrives, it will be the perfect test case to discover what’s really driving the e-books market. Though its success will probably have no effect on the fate of independent bookstores.