August 9, 2013 Last Updated 1:34 pm

Google updates its reader app while publishers begin to worry about eBook sales

The iOS app for Google Play Books was updated last night by the search giant. The update adds the ability to highlight and take notes on pages that have been scanned. It also adds a sepia reading mode.

GoogleBooks-iPhone5-lgThe biggest change, though, is that the app adds support for rental books, a new category of books being promoted by Amazon, and is being approached by book publishers with caution.

Recently Google trimmed back on the number of file types they will accept into their store. Publishers now must submit their books in either ePub, ePub3, or PDF formats. This eliminated a number of formats including .mobi. The change is most likely a nice step in the direction of standards. Initially Google accepted just about anything as the company was playing catch up to Apple, and most especially Amazon. Their position more secure, Google may be starting to think about the reading experience more. Pushing ePub3 would put them in a good position as Apple has its own proprietary format, and Amazon is pushing Kindle Editions.

Meanwhile, a slow down in eBook sales has much of the industry buzzing. Growth in the first quarter of the year was only 5 percent, better than nothing, but hardly the robust growth one would expect.

But several factors must be considered: overall book sales were down for the quarter, 4.7 percent; and book app sales are not part of the report, something that would show up in Apple’s statistics if they were to ever break out app sales by category.

Some have speculated that the good times may be over as the market is simply maturing.

“In spite of the spectacular growth of ebooks in 2008 to 2011, we all know that eventually the ride would come to a stop as the growth of ebook market share slowed. TBH I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly,” Nate Hoffelder wrote last month on his site The Digital Reader.

Nicholas Carr of Rough Type wonders if the new tablets are “less conducive to book buying and reading than e-readers were?” and can account for the slowing of eBook growth.

Many online commenters have used the opportunity to slam the whole notion of digital books, but it is hard for me to take their comments seriously as they run counter to statistics I have seen about reading trends. Print may still be the preferred format for many readers, but their numbers are getting smaller… and older. Students who grow up reading textbooks and other materials on tablets in classrooms will be an ever growing market for eBooks as these students mature.

For me, the big question remains “are physical bookstores being opened in your neighborhood, or closed?” The decline in brick and mortar bookstores is having an impact on book sales – and single copy magazine sales – that publishers have noticed and have expressed alarm in quiet, informal conversations with me. Like the plague arriving in the next village, few want to talk about it – and, besides, what can they do about it anyways, start building bookstores?

Jobs-iPad2-lg-1Part of the problem lies in the overall size of the market. Magazine publishers dreamed of enormous growth through digital editions, but failed to take into account the reading habits of their subscribers. Few magazine readers subscribe to dozens of print magazines, what made them think they would want to subscribe to endless numbers of digital titles? The eBook market seems equally constrained by the limited ability of readers to read more than one book at a time. Until we evolve into creatures with dozens of eyes and multitasking brains this will remain a weakness of the species.

But, finally, the other factor coming into play may simply be the poor quality of many of the digital editions being produced. Publishers, eager to get into the eBook market, have been flooding the market with simple digital conversions of their print books. Readers don’t see these digital editions as superior to print simply because they are not. Until these publishers begin to put as much care and effort into their eBooks as they have their print books, readers who care about quality will be hesitant to invest in digital editions.

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