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Originally published June 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 1, 2009 at 9:21 AM

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Google says it will challenge Amazon on electronic books

Google plans a new program by the end of the year for publishers to sell digital versions of their newest books directly to consumers.

The New York Times

NEW YORK — Google plans a new program by the end of the year for publishers to sell digital versions of their newest books directly to consumers.

The move would pit Google against Seattle-based Amazon.com, which is seeking to control the electronic-book market with the versions it sells for its Kindle reading device.

Google's plan is likely to be welcomed by publishers concerned about Amazon's aggressive pricing strategy for e-books. Amazon offers Kindle editions of most new best-sellers for $9.99, a price far lower than the typical $26 at which publishers sell new hardcovers.

In early discussions, Google has said it would allow publishers to set consumer prices.

"Clearly, any major company coming into the e-book space, providing that we are happy with the pricing structure, the selling price and the security of the technology, will be a welcome addition," said David Young, CEO of Hachette Book Group, which publishes blockbuster authors like James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer and Nicholas Sparks.

Google's e-book retail program would be separate from the company's settlement with authors and publishers over its book-scanning project, under which Google has scanned more than 7 million volumes from several university libraries. A majority of those books are out of print.

Under the new program, publishers voluntarily give Google digital files of new and other in-print books. Already on Google, users can search up to about 20 percent of the content of those books and then, if they want to buy them, link from Google to online retailers like Amazon, and buy either paper or electronic versions of the books.

But Google proposed to allow users to buy those digital editions direct from Google.

Although Google has discussed such plans before, it has now committed to going live with the project by the end of 2009. Over the weekend at the annual BookExpo convention in New York, Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, added the phrase: "This time we mean it."

Turvey said Google plans to sell readers online access to digital versions of various titles. When offline, Turvey said, readers would still be able to access their electronic books in cached versions on their browsers.

Turvey said Google's program would allow consumers to read books on any device with Internet access, including mobile phones, rather than being limited to devices like the Amazon Kindle. "We don't believe that having a silo or a proprietary system is the way that e-books will go," he said.

He said Google would allow publishers to set retail prices. Amazon lets publishers set wholesale prices and then sets its own prices for consumers.

In selling e-books at $9.99, Amazon effectively takes a loss on each sale because publishers generally charge booksellers about half the list price of a hardcover — typically, around $13 or $14.

Turvey said Google would probably allow publishers to charge readers the same price for digital editions as they do for new hardcover ones, but that it would reserve the right to adjust prices deemed "exorbitant."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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