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Authors Beware: Google Books is an Epic Fail

On April 11, 2013 I tried to email my contact at Google Books to discuss some serious defects in the service (detailed in the email below). If you’re an author considering Google Books and/or selling your book on Google Play, you may want to read through my email below, before you waste too much time or get your hopes up too high.

Dear [Google Books Team Representative],
I am soon coming out with the second edition of my novel and was thinking of offering it for sale through Google Play, but here’s why I have decided against the idea:

1) there are a huge number of problems with your Google Books service (see below) and virtually non-existent customer service, and I suspect that the experience with Google Play will be no better.2) your revenue share is only 45-52% (lower than all of my other e-book distributors). Maybe your below-market royalty explains why this key contract term is so buried and hard to find. In fact, you don’t even mention this key detail in the page devoted to this entire issue (titled “Sales revenue split”). Only if authors bother to scour the Google eBooks Addendum, will they discover (in sections 1.16 and 1.18) the detail that potentially matters to them most: what they’ll be paid for their work. Considering that Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” I hope you can see the irony here.
3) Your contract terms expose authors to chargeback risks and similar credit card issues. Specifically, section 4.4 of the Google eBooks Addendum states: “Google reserves the right to withhold payment, offset amounts owed to you or debit your bank account due to any of the foregoing or any breach of this Addendum by you.”
No other distribution partner that I’m working with (including Amazon) requires its authors to allow their distributors to “debit your bank account” for returns, chargebacks, etc. Sales are final or the return is allowed but simply deducted from the author’s accumulated or future royalties — not debited against the author’s bank account (which creates all sorts of potential risks/problems).
4) As detailed below, the traffic that Google Books brings — at least according to the report produced by Google Books — is paltry, suggesting that little additional revenue would result from combining this service with Google Play. Selling books on Google Play means sharing one’s social security number and banking information with a company that arguably already has far too much of one’s personal information. Thus, the incremental privacy loss plus the risk that Google may legally pursue authors for refunds/chargebacks, together make whatever minimal additional sales revenue that Google Play might produce seem less than worth it.

Of course, I don’t expect Google to change anything for me or in light of the above comments/complaints, but I’d still be curious to hear your response. While I have enormous respect for most of what Google does and think it’s generally an impressively intelligent and innovative company, Google Books has thus far been an unmitigated FAIL that is hardly worthy of the Google brand (as detailed below). You may want to discontinue the service altogether if you can’t fix the many things that are wrong with it — if only to preserve your reputation as a smart and competent company.

The whole point of uploading a book to the Google Books service is to enable more people to discover an author’s book organically through search, so a key measure of success for the service is the traffic that Google Books has generated for a participating title (as reported by the Google Books traffic report). Well, apparently in six months, all of 37 people have visited my book page (and two of those are undoubtedly me and a relative/friend). Meanwhile 526 pages have been read, suggesting an average read of 14 pages per person, resulting in a total of seven sales in six months. Considering how consistently well my book has done on Amazon (where, since last July, it has ranked between 2,000 and 50,000 out of all Kindle books), the results for Google Books — an average of six web visitors per month — are an undeniable disappointment. It was also a massive waste of my time, considering how long it took to set everything up properly on Google Books, chase down someone who could provide some customer support, and deal with the various issues that crept up along the way.

In the “imprint settings,” the “browsable %” setting with the most limited free preview option claims to show only 20% of a book that is uploaded to Google Books. I chose that option yet I see that the first 22% of the novel are displayed without interruption and only after that are pages removed until the very last page, producing a preview that is actually 23% of the total. So the math obviously doesn’t add up — somewhat surprising for a company that is as numerically oriented as Google.
This may seem like a trivial deviation but how are authors supposed to trust that Google Books works properly? As your service is currently set up, authors who don’t want to display their entire book for free can choose to display 20%-90% of their book in the book preview feature. Does this mean that someone who uploaded a 500-page book and opted for a 50% preview has to click through every single page of the free preview to ensure that no more than 250 pages were displayed because my own test of the “20%” setting showed it to be defective? Moreover, is it fair to force authors to display at least 20% (which is in reality 23%) of their book when Amazon, the de facto industry standard setter, displays only the first 13% of the book as a free sample?
My book currently has 72 reviews on Amazon and 23 ratings (including 19 reviews) on Goodreads, and other reviews on many other book sites. Yet on Google Books it shows zero reviews, conveying the false impression that the book has received no interest or attention from readers.PROBLEMS WITH BUY LINKS
There is a big red button that says “Get Print Book” even though no print book has ever existed (although I hope to release one in the coming weeks). BROKEN. Moreover, there is no way for me to add a link to a vendor of any print edition, once the paperback does become commercially available. FAIL.

Below that, the following incorrect information is displayed: No eBook available. EPIC FAIL. The Google Books page is promoting precisely that — an eBook. So you are effectively promoting an eBook with a web page that says “No eBook available”…Could you look any more broken and incompetent? No, you could not. Good thing that Google Books is still officially in “Beta.”

Below the epic fail, a bunch of totally defective links appear.

About half a year after I complained about the broken Amazon buy link, it is still as broken as ever and just produces this error (instead of my Amazon book page):

Your search “1623094526” did not match any products.

The Barnes & Noble link takes users to the B&N home page (not my B&N book page).

You then have a link to Books a Million where my product is not even offered for sale.

Below that is a link for Indie Bound (where my book also is not available), which produces this error:

Book not found!

The ONLY link that works is the one to my home page, but many (if not most) book readers will start with Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and I doubt that many of those people would even bother to try anything else after the above results.

Also, what is this stuff (at the bottom of my book page)?Export CitationBiBTeX EndNote RefMan

Please send me a detailed response at your earliest convenience.

And fix your service already. I brought many of these problems to your attention about half a year ago.

For a multi-billion dollar, publicly traded company that prides itself on massive brainpower that’s focused on making the Internet better and teaching machines to think for themselves, can’t you do better than the above? As we bring this litany of failures to its sorry conclusion, let us return for a moment to Google’s lofty mission statement:  “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google Books was a promising and innovative idea. But the reality of its implementation can be summed up in one word: Fail.

I never heard back from the human who used to respond to emails when I ran into technical problems back when I first tried to set up my Google Books page in September of 2012.
But I did promptly receive an automated email from Google sending me to a bunch of “contact us” links that — like a labyrinth with no escape — just produced more links with inapplicable multiple choice answers but never an opportunity to send a message that accurately described the many problems at hand.
So there’s probably a simple explanation for why the Google Books service sucks so badly: the few humans who were working in that department all quit before they got the machines who replaced them up to speed. So authors beware: you’re basically on your own with Google Books. And it sucks.

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