A Review of Independent Bookstores Selling Google eBooks

March 13, 2011

The American Booksellers Association announced on December 6, 2010, that ABA-member IndieCommerce websites are now selling Google eBooks™ online.  We are now a little over 90 days in, and this post is a review of that program.

My first stop was looking up some recent news regarding Google eBooks.  I came across this March 6th mlive.com article, by Chris Knape, titled “As bookstores everywhere struggle, Schuler Books in West Michigan offers customers an updated edition“.  The article starts out talking about how Schuler Books is now diversifying into kitchen utensils, heat-therapy pillows,  and other non-book items.  Then an explanation about the diversification to eBooks:

“In December, Schuler joined a partnership between Google, book publishers and other independent bookstores that allows it to profit from the sale of Google eBooks from its website, SchulerBooks.com.

Google eBooks can be read on virtually every mainstream reader device except Amazon’s market-leading Kindle, which uses a proprietary format.

Each Schuler store now has a dedicated kiosk to walk customers through the process of purchasing an eBook online.

Unlike traditional new books — which Schuler still stocks by the thousands — the company makes commissions off the sale of eBooks, so it has no upfront inventory costs. Because prices are set by publishers, they are the same regardless of where a consumer makes a purchase. In the industry, that’s known as the agency model.”

Interested in how Schuler Books implemented this “partnership”, I visited shulerbooks.com to learn more.  Their website greeted me with a 400 pixel wide “WE SELL eBOOKS” banner that was front and center.  Underneath the banner was this embedded youtube video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yLZLkpnGFU&feature=player_embedded

Some of the initial questions and thoughts that popped into my mind as I watched the video:

  1. What will motivate a customer to go to schulerbooks.com to purchase an eBook versus the Google ebookstore? Where is the added value? The differentiators?
  2. It is apparent that Google eBooks are intended to be run on many devices. If I buy a Google eBook from Schuler, does this mean that Schuler will assist me in accessing and loading the content onto my Android?  How about my Nook? iPhone?
  3. What if I had a kitchen utensil and a Google eBook that I wanted to buy?  Would schulerbooks.com be able to handle this?  An eBook and a physical book/item in the same shopping cart could potentially pose a serious challenge for a small indie ecommerce website (in my opinion).
  4. How seamless is the transition from schulerbooks.com to Google, and back again?  Is it a good customer experience?
  5. At 3:03, why would I want to read and download my Google eBooks from schulerbooks.com and not the Google ebookstore? Is Shuler going to have an app for that?
  6. At 3:07, when Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk opens for reading, it seems to be an odd transition to a very stripped down page.
  7. Does schulerbooks.com have the same comprehensive inventory that I would find on Google’s ebookstore?
  8. How is schulerbooks.com’s search functionality?  Does it actually use Google as a back-end search engine to pull up the results?

With a few ideas for what I wanted to test and review, I set off with the following methods:

Search shulerbooks.com and the Google ebookstore to see how they compare

First I did a few author searches on Schuler.  I searched for “Dan Brown” and “Stephen King”…. seemed to work fine.  Then I searched for “The Help” by Stockett on Schuler’s Google eBooks tab… nothing.  Then I thought that maybe Google doesn’t have that book. I hopped over to Google’s ebookstore and found it right away.

Next I looked at Google ebookstore’s New arrivals.  The following b0oks were displayed to me:

As a test, I searched for the following on schulerbooks.com:

  • Moonwalking with Einstein
  • One of our Thursdays is Missing
  • Dark Prince
  • The Company We Keep

The first two were NOT found on schulerbooks.com, and the second two were found.  This, along with “The Help” being MIA, leads me to conclude the answer to #7 is NO.  Independent bookstores may NOT have the same comprehensive eBook inventory that the Google ebookstore has.

For #8, I simply tested a few misspellings.  One of which was “Moonwalking with Einstein” versus “Moonwalking with Einstien“. Google ebookstore correctly found the book I wanted, while schulerbooks.com did not. Google also told me that I spelled it wrong by giving the the classic “did you mean___ link.” The leads me to conclude that Schuler is not using Google’s search power to pull up their search results.  They must be relying on some other search engine (which will undoubtedly pale in comparison to Google’s).

Link my Google account to shulerbooks.com and see what happens

Background info: I already have four books in my Google ebookstore library: one of which I purchased and three I downloaded for free.

It was not difficult to create the schulerbooks.com account and then find what to click on to “associate” the two accounts.  However, I did have a problem with Google’s language:

The site schulerbooks.com is requesting access to your Google Account for the product(s) listed below.

Google Books

Google is not affiliated with schulerbooks.com, and we recommend that you grant access only if you trust the site.

The red font was added by me for emphasis. “Google is not affiliated with schulerbooks.com….”  OK, we’ve got a problem here, right off the bat for #4.  We went from a warm and fuzzy “partnership” in the mlive.com article to “not affiliated” according to Google.  Hmmm… I went ahead and clicked the “Grant access” button regardless of the wording issue.  After clicking Grant access, I found myself at the following page:

New problem: there should be four books in my ebook library, not one.  My free downloads from Google seem to be missing. That answers #5. I would only use Google for that fact alone. Here is a screen shot of my Google ebookstore library:

Then I clicked the “Read” link in my Schuler Google eBooks list for the CSS book.  I was taken to books.google.com.  Where the next problem came about was when I clicked the Back link.  Instead of taking me back to the page I was on (my ebook library), it takes me back to the product page for that book on Schuler.  Oops. That answers #6. The transition has a problem.

Go shopping

To test #3, I simply added an eBook to my cart and then a paperback book.  I immediately received this red error message, which answers it:

We could not add this item to your cart. At this time, Google eBooks must be purchased separately from other products and other eBooks. We apologize for the inconvenience while we’re working to improve this.

Unlink

I was unsuccessful in using my Google account to figure out how to disassociate my Schuler with my Google Account. I did find the location on Google.  It says: “Connected accounts – View and manage your accounts from other services”. But after clicking it, Schuler does not show up.  Another oops.  I finally was able to figure out how to disassociate them only by visiting shulerbooks.com, My Account, My eBooks, and then a link in the footer says “Disassociate my Google Account”.

In Conclusion

Finally, to answer #1 and #2.  Ultimately, an eBook shopper needs an easy way to search, browse, purchase, read, and be supported in this new and emerging technology.  So far, this ABA indie bookstore Google eBook partnership model fails on many levels.  This seems likely only the tip of an iceberg of failure to me.  Why would someone go to an indie bookstore to buy a Google eBook instead of just going straight to Google?  To offer their undying love and support of the indie bookstore?  Maybe.  But, if going straight to Google saves people enough time, hassle, and headache; then there will not be a need (or want) for the indie middleman.  For example, there is huge value in Google’s searching and browsing capabilities alone.

Many people will simply want the shortest route from point A to point B.  Point A is “I think I want to buy an eBook.”  Point B is reading your new eBook on one of many supported devices.  It is true that you can buy the book at the indie store for the same PRICE as the Google ebookstore–for that, I applaud Google, the publishers, the ABA, and the adoption of the agency model.  But, from the consumer perspective, there is much more to this than simply price and supporing your local indie store.  This indie model adds layers in between Google and the end user.  If these layers do not add enough value to the consumer, they will reject them. Furthermore, if these layers tend to add time and hassle to the process, then more the reason for the consumer to reject them.  By layers, I specifically mean the inferior search/browse capabilities of the indie ecommerce websites. Another layer is the eBook library that was missing three of my books. Another layer is the purchase process. Then the reading process… and so on.

Additionally, a quick test of a few other independent bookstore websites showed very similar problems, and similar unnecessary layers.

In conclusion, the current process of independent bookstores selling Google eBooks was disappointing.  The ultimate fate of this Indie/Google partnership remains to be seen, but my prediction is that it is headed for trouble.

3 thoughts on “A Review of Independent Bookstores Selling Google eBooks

  1. Bill Fehsenfeld

    Jim,

    A few points. I agree that indiebound has not reached parity with Google, and probably never will. However, they have given customers of independent bookstores a reasonable way to still support their local store while buying an ebook.

    First on searches. The Help is a penguin book. At this point, for some reason, Penguin has not agreed to terms with Indiebound. That should happen shortly. When it does, all the titles you found missing will be available. There should be no difference in the in print titles available from Google or Indiebound. I agree the search engine does not equal Google. It is about the same as the search engine at McKenzie Books. When you figure out how to use Google’s search engine on your site, let me know.

    Second, it is odd that you should expect books that you purchased from Google to appear in your Schuler Books account. Also, when you choose to read a book on your computer, you are taken to your Google account. It is odd that you think the back button should take you from Google back to your account page at schulerbooks.com. Many would consider that a security issue.

    Any time that you link an external site to you Gpogle account, you would receive a message that the site is not affiliated with Google. I agree that a naive user might be put off by that. Maybe Google can be persuaded to change the language.

    Indiebound is working on being able to put eBooks and physical product into the same cart, as well as a number of other improvements. Frankly, none of the issues you have mentioned have been the ones of most concern to our customers. Their most common issue is that customers have not been able to use our gift cards for eBooks. Indiebound is within a week or two of having that fixed. You have to realize, they have a quite small staff.

    We do have customers buying Google eBooks from our site. Not everyone needs things dumbed down to the fullest possible extent.

    Thanks, Bill Fehsenfeld, Schuler Books

  2. Jim McKenzie Smith

    Hi Bill,

    Thank you for your reply.

    I was not aware that Penguin has not agreed to terms with Indiebound. That does explain the missing titles.

    There may be a misunderstanding regarding the “My Google eBooks” missing books. The CSS book was purchased straight from Google, and it DOES show up in my Schuler Books “My Google eBooks” account. The problem I encountered was actually with the FREE public domain eBooks that I have in my Google eBook account. If my CSS book is there (which I did not purchase from Schuler), why wouldn’t my public domain books be there too? It is the details like this that I think people can easily be frustrated with.

    With the back button issue, I think there may also be a misunderstanding. I was logged into my Schuler Books account. I clicked to read a book. I clicked back (still in the same browser session). Logically, clicking “back” should take me back to my Schuler Books eBook library, where I am still logged in. It is not a security issue. If their schulerbooks.com login session has timed out, simply prompt them to log back in. This is common behavior across the internet. Login to website A, then leave and browse site B, C, and D. Return to site A and you will still be logged in to your account (as long as you haven’t closed your browser).

    I have actually been giving serious consideration to selling Google eBooks. But, one problem I have is that I perceive it to NOT be a niche market. I think one of the keys to future success for e-commerce is to GO NICHE. By going niche, you can “own” that space on the web. Own the SEO. Own the demographic. Here is an article that you may find interesting on the subject: http://techcrunch.com/2011/02/13/bye-bye-long-tail/

    Another problem I have is the sheer convenience of buying an eBook from the Google Books app (on Android mobile devices and the iPhone). Now, let’s say someone is using the Google app to read a book on their mobile device, and their friend tells them about a great new book they should read. What is likely to happen here? Well, I have the Google Books app, and I can tell you that there is a button as you are reading called “My eBooks”. Follow that and it lists out all of your eBooks (yes, even the public domain ones). At the top of that list is a button that says “Get eBooks”. And, that takes you to (you guessed it), the Google eBookstore. So, they are reading, and then within two clicks they are shopping on the Google eBookstore from their Android phone or iPhone.

    Thanks for sharing about the troubles with the gift certificates. I hadn’t thought of that being an issue.

    -Jim

  3. Jim McKenzie Smith Post author

    3/31/2011 UPDATE:

    Penguin has evidently now agreed to terms with Indiebound. The missing titles can now be found.

    However, the fact remains that it took them over 3 months to do so. In which time, the average customer would have been scratching their head as to why the could not find certain books on the independent bookstore websites (there was no explanation provided on the failed searches).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *