Both Amazon and Google have unveiled major developments in their plans to dominate the future of e-books. These moves will not only see the two internet giants compete head-to-head but will also see the traditional book publishing industry and authors face the dilemma of whether to see these developments as a welcome new outlet for their business or a threat to their existence.
Amazon has announced that its Kindle ebook reader is going on sale in the UK and other countries, initially by shipping from the US but with a free global wireless service for downloading new books to the device.
If it can dominate the supply of devices and of content, it would have a role in the book trade similar to that of Apple with iTunes and the iPod family in the music trade.
Google, however, has its own vision of the future. It has announced plans to extend its Google Books service, which currently makes available a range of out of copyright and copyright materials, by adding in the ability to buy books. They will be downloadable in a format which, Google hopes, will be taken up by the manufacturers of a range of electronic devices.
Whilst Amazon is trying to emulate the closed Apple model, Google is going for the open model that has previously served it so well.
Google already pays for around 90% of the 10m books it makes available via Google Books. Around 1 million are out of copyright but the rest are covered by revenue-share agreements. Being able to sell books adds a major new potential source of income.
The impact on authors is hard to judge. Nervous authors will be fretting that Google and Amazon will use market dominance to drive down royalties. Adventurous authors will be looking forward to the new self-publishing opportunities that both could open up. Optimistic authors will welcome the way e-books can keep books a relevant and contemporary medium even as the world goes more and more digital. Although book piracy is much less of an issue than music piracy, wise authors will also note that the more widespread availability of legal music downloads has helped curb illegal downloads.
The forthcoming struggle between Google and Amazon, both distinguished by that highly unusual feature of internet businesses of being large and profitable enough to compare with the biggest of non-internet firms, should be a sight to see.
With a bit of luck, the competitive edge will drive down prices whilst driving up quality of service and technology. That should benefit both authors and readers in the long run.