Google Turns the Page

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) may have had publishers in a state of frenzy over its plans to scan and digitize books, but now publishers may sing a slightly different tune. Google has revealed a plan that allows Web searchers to purchase the books they find using its search engine. One can only imagine that this move should mollify publishers, who obviously thought Google's "Don't be evil" mission was a load of balderdash, given their outrage over its previous plans for books.

This latest development represents a significant overture to publishers. Google hopes that through its Google Books function, Web searchers can pay a fee to access a digital copy of a book (which they will not be able to download to their PCs or copy). If they wish to buy hard copies, they would be directed by links to services like Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) and Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS  ) , as well as its own Froogle. Most of the proceeds from digital viewing are seen going to the publishers.

If you recall, the publishing world has been peeved with Google for quite some time. Through its Google Print initiatives, the company sought to digitize books in their entirety, a plan that brought about all sorts of copyright controversy. My Foolish colleague Tim Beyers wrote about the fact that the Authors Guild sued Google last fall. (It's also been sued by the Association of American Publishers over its plans.)

It seems to me that this is a fine way to alleviate the tension between Google and publishers. Google said on its website that this will allow publishers a chance to experiment with a new method of distributing their content and get paid for it.

Meanwhile, of course, books are one of the final frontiers in digital media, seeing how the idea of e-books never took off (they represent a mere $10 million of the $24 billion publishing industry). The fact that it's still such a nascent area explains why Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) is trying to beat rivals to the punch with its upcoming Sony Reader device. It stands to reason that Sony might be watching Google's moves in this regard with utmost interest. I'd also think the aforementioned Amazon.com is watching carefully. Through Amazon Shorts, it makes short stories in digital form available for a small fee. Plus, Amazon Upgrade is scheduled to launch later this year. That service will allow customers to "upgrade" purchase of physical books with digital copies they can access at any time.

For all that publishers have looked askance at Google's book plans, I can't help but think this is a winning situation for them (and another example of the ways in which the so-called "Long Tail Effect" is going to help bring the obscure to the mainstream). Meanwhile, it could get Google out of the hot seat when it comes to the controversial topic of digital copyright -- something Google investors certainly want to see.

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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.


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