Google Inc. plans to begin selling digital books in late June or July, a company official said Tuesday, throwing the search giant into a battle that already involves Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc.
Google has been discussing its vision for distributing books online for several years and for months has been evangelizing about its new service, called Google Editions. The company is hoping to distinguish Google Editions in the marketplace by allowing users to access books from a broad range of websites using an array of devices, unlike rivals that are focused on proprietary devices and software.
Chris Palma, Google's manager for strategic-partner development, announced the timetable for Google's plans on Tuesday at a publishing- industry panel in New York.
Google says users will be able to buy digital copies of books they discover through its book-search service. It will also allow book retailers—even independent shops—to sell Google Editions on their own sites, giving partners the bulk of the revenue.
The company would have copies on its servers for works it strikes agreements to sell. Google is still deciding whether it will follow the model where publishers set the retail price or whether Google sets the price.
While Mr. Palma didn't go into details, users of Google Editions would be able to read books from a web browser—meaning that the type of e-reader device wouldn't matter. The company also could build software to optimize reading on certain devices like an iPhone or iPad but hasn't announced any specific plans.
By contrast, Amazon's digital book business is largely focused on its Kindle e-reader and Kindle software that runs on some other hardware.
The project is Google's attempt to crack into the market of distributing current and backlist works.
Publishers have yet to publicly commit to participate in the service but Google isn't expected to run into much trouble getting them to join. Publishers tend to believe the more outlets to sell books the better. Even the smallest independent bookstore will have access to a sophisticated electronic-book sales service with a vast selection of titles.
"This levels the retail playing field," said Evan Schnittman, vice president of global business development for Oxford University Press. "And as a publisher, what I like is that I won't have to think about audiences based on devices. This is an electronic product that consumers can get anywhere as long as they have a Google account."
He said Google Editions will also be critical because it represents "the ultimate test" of whether the ability to search, find and instantly buy content will generate significant gains in revenue. "This tears down barriers," he added.
Retail isn't Google's calling card, but the company has an online store for Android apps, sells software for businesses and it sells a phone.
Google may struggle to build awareness about the service. It is hoping users click to buy books through its Book Search product, which has a relatively small following compared to its overall search service. It is also betting on other book resellers to push and promote Google Editions themselves. Whether they do so will probably depend on how much revenue they are generating.
The online sales effort is separate from Google's fight to win rights to distribute millions of out-of-print books through its digital book settlement with authors and publishers. U.S. District Court Judge Denny Chin is expected to rule in that case soon.
Tuesday's industry event, at Random House's Manhattan offices, was titled: "The Book on Google: Is the Future of Publishing in the Cloud?" Tuesday's panel was presented by Publishers Weekly and sponsored the Book Industry Study Group.