Indie Author’s Take on Google Play: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

This article by Jason Matthews first featured at The Book Designer.

The official name for interested authors is the Google Books Partner Program. It launched in Dec. 2010 as Google Editions, then became Google Ebooks, then got engulfed in the massive Android supermarket known as Google Play. How would I describe the experience of uploading and selling ebooks there? It reminds me of a movie title: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

The Good

They actually sell ebooks. Over the past two years I’ve sold more with Google than at Barnes & Noble or Kobo. That was a pleasant surprise since Google doesn’t depend on book sales to stay afloat or make a dedicated device for reading as the others do. My prediction is for sales to continue to grow though I’m no Vegas-insider.

Purchases can be made in forty-four countries with ongoing expansion. That’s quite an audience. In thirty-six of those countries, authors (called partners) can upload ebooks. In twenty of the thirty-six, Google will pay partners with direct bank deposits (EFT) as is the case for North America and most of Europe. Otherwise payments are with wire transfers.

Search-ability is Google’s forte. They scan your entire document and factor that into the world’s largest search engine. I’ve tested this by copying random sentences from deep within my books and pasting them into a Google search. For example, try this sentence in a search: Mara reminded me of the pictures I had seen of Rose.

Google text search

Lo and behold, the Google book result appears at the very top of the list, and not one other retailer shows up further down. It also works with character names and subject matter, though for popular search terms you may have to scroll down a few pages. This is especially helpful for authors with rarer subjects or names within their books. Remember that Google searches can be tailored just for book results (though the example above is a general Web search).

EPUB files on Google Play support enhanced ebook features (EEBs) such as embedded audio and video. They also support fixed layouts and give advice on how to implement the HTML code for that.

Perhaps the best reason to publish there: less competition exists from other indie authors at Google Play than at Amazon and other retailers. Smashwords, a distributor that sends ebooks to major retailers and library channels, doesn’t ship to Google Play. Neither does Draft2Digital. The only way I’m aware of is to upload directly. This eliminates a lot of indie authors assumedly for the bad and ugly reasons listed below.

The Bad

Uploading there is challenging. It’s as if the book store engineers decided to reinvent the wheel without taking a peek at how Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords and other retailers handle the art of receiving cover images and interior files.

You’ll need to upload interior documents as EPUB and/or PDF files. Google recommends that you send both types since they offer two display modes: original pages and reflowable text. Providing the PDF will ensure that readers can view the book in its original layout, while the EPUB will allow a more customizable experience. Many authors are unfamiliar with EPUB, working in MS Word and uploading that or saving it as HTML Web Page Filtered. There are free and paid solutions for making EPUB conversions including Calibre, Sigil, 2epub and others. You can even download and save an EPUB file if you’ve uploaded MS Word directly at Kobo or Barnes & Noble, which they convert to EPUB for their devices.

Unfortunately there is no preview mode, which irks me. Amazon has an amazing previewer, and the others have made dramatic improvements in this arena. The only way to preview your book at Google Play is to wait until it has processed and then view the sample.

Price gouging at Google Play is about 23%, which means they’ll reduce whatever price you set it at. Remember to bump up your price by at least 23% or be subject to Amazon price matching to match their lower price.

There is little customer support although it has gotten better. An email to support leads to this automatic reply: Thanks for contacting us. We’ll follow up with you only if we need more information or have additional information to share. (Feels like they’re copping attitude.) In the past I’ve waited a week or more for a response. Recently I tested the service with an email and got a reply within a few hours when I included a screen-share of the problem, which is recommended. Tip: include screen-shares in correspondence to entertain bored Google Books employees.

The Ugly

Royalties are 52%. When comparing that to the industry standard, like 70% at Amazon, it’s a bummer. Of course you could always bump the price just a bit higher to split the difference. Not a great royalty, but still worth doing if more sales platforms are better.

It feels like a wild-goose chase searching for info to accomplish things. I’ve reread tutorial articles many times only to find myself back at the starting point, wishing Google allowed comments following the article that likely would help me solve issues. Instead they just offer a rating system if the article was helpful or not. To understand my frustration, play around at their Help Center for awhile: https://support.google.com/books/?.

Worse than that, it’s a serious chore to get the book’s description and author bio to have proper formatting, even using the simplest formatting. The description may look awful once posted as this one did:

formatting issues Google Play books

It appears the best way to make formatting behave it is to retype it on the editing page, which is annoying if you have multiple books and all that stuff is already written. For the 99% of us who want to copy and paste the info from elsewhere, it’s necessary to hit the remove formatting button in the description box and then manually re-enter the formatting such as for paragraph returns and bold type. The remove formatting button is highlighted in the yellow circle below:

Remove formatting button

I had to play around with multiple formatting changes for the description and author bio boxes, then wait about six hours to see how those changes appeared, then repeat until everything was acceptable. It took five days and over a dozen attempts, which is either embarrassing for me or a sign that Google needs to fix this.

Another ugly aspect, and this may be improbable, is the off-chance Google might dump the whole book program. There’s a trust issue with Google that doesn’t exist at other behemoths like Amazon. Google has scrapped plenty of programs as they did with Reader, Wave, Videos, Buzz and more. These dead programs are referred to as the Google Graveyard, and their numbers rise as Google experiments with software and the convenience of really deep pockets. My concern for selling ebooks is that they don’t make a dedicated e-reading device. In the past they had a partnership with the iRiver Story, but that device didn’t integrate into the formation of Google Play, and the iRiver has since been discontinued. Who buys Google books? My guess is people who read on cell phones and various tablets. Does Google really want to compete with Amazon, Apple and others for the long term? We’ll see. The fact that they are selling ebooks and making money on each sale suggests they won’t dump the program. But if they did, it wouldn’t be a shock.

The Verdict

What kind of author should upload to Google Play? Those willing to go the extra mile, knowing it’s a bit more technical, less intuitive, far more annoying, and the risk/rewards are still embedded in a gray area. Selling ebooks there may turn out to be a prosperous alternative or a total waste of time. (Sadly, I just described myself.) If you’re interested in getting started, visit this link: https://play.google.com/books/publish/signup.

And if you have any advice or comments, as always please share them in the comments.


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5 Responses to “Indie Author’s Take on Google Play: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. hedonist6 Says:

    Great article, and very comprehensive. Adding to the bit about pricing, I just want to say that if you’re going to upload to Google Play, and you do the thing of putting the price up just enough so they discount it to a level similar enough to your pricing else where, do NOT under ANY circumstance do a limited time sale. I made the mistake of doing a 1 week sale of my novel from 3.99 to 0.99 and Google Play has refused to put the price back up afterwards. Not only did it not make much difference to my sales on the platform (it was selling pretty OK at the higher price too), but Amazon started matching it. For the moment I pulled that book from Play and had Amazon remove the pricematch. Beyond waiting a little while and reinstating it on Google Play, in the hopes that they will have forgotten about the (temporary!) 0.99 price, I’m not sure how to fix it. So yeah, choose a price and be prepared to stick to it. Don’t expect to be able to increase your pricing because they’ll just keep it at the lower level apparently.

  2. tannerakane Says:

    Google Play is soooo messed up. I tried several times over the past year to upload books. The site doesn’t work, some materials didn’t upload, and I set pricing and other data. One day I may attempt again. Tapping into Google’s market works for authors.

  3. Rachel Leigh Smith (@rachelleighgeek) Says:

    I’m embarking on the indie path, and this was very helpful. I do buy books from the Play store, quite often in fact, and put them on my Nook. Since I buy there it makes sense to have my books there.

    And I will definitely pay attention to the pricing stuff. I don’t want Amazon price-matching something to 99 cents.


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