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Dear GOOGLE PLAY BOOKS (RANT!)

A few years ago I started using Google Play Books (GPB) as my primary epub reader. I did so after learning that GPB supported epub very well and had an incredibly simple drag-and-drop upload feature.

I quickly uploaded 100s of public domain and self-created and Smashwords titles to it. GPB was cross-platform and cloud-based. Horray! Did you know that there’s an ios GPB ebooks that looks just as good as in Android? Wow, you could upload PDFs as well… Horray! For a while I was in heaven.

But last year, the warts quickly became apparent.

Problem: Searching for Ebooks

The android GPB makes it difficult to search for one of your ebooks. Seriously, it is a pain in the neck. I’m not talking about searching WITHIN one ebook (GPB does it well). You just can’t search THROUGH your ebook inventory. Whenever I try to search for an uploaded epub title I uploaded, GPB will show multiple titles for me to PAY MONEY FOR! I realize that all ebook distributors nudge users to the commercial store, but in GPB’s case, they have two separate apps — the reading app and the store app. It will literally open up a separate app and then keep you trapped there until you switch back to the reading application.

Have I mentioned already that GPB books are expensive?

One thing going for GPB is continuity of look and feel across platforms. That is generally true — except for SEARCH! When I am on a desktop browser and searching for an ebook title I already uploaded, the GPB interface makes it impossible to find. I have tried many times; it is impossible. Instead it will trap you again inside the ebook store. Let me be clear. You can choose to view all uploaded ebooks — you just can’t search for them. (Apparently searching for things is something Google isn’t very good at).

Collections — where are they?

Lack of searchability wouldn’t be that big a deal if GPB had some way to organize titles into categories or collections. After all, practically every single ebook reading system has implemented this feature. Google decided not to implement it at all. {Perhaps the Google PHBs just thought that if users needed a specific title, they could just search for it?) The only feature implemented is the “Finished” category (which instructs the device to remove the file but to remain in the index). Google has 3 Shelves: START CONTINUE and FINISHED .

But this is insane. I mentioned already how unusable GPB search is both on the device and in the PC browser. Maybe having no collections would work in a library with less than a 100 titles, but I have 1000-1500. One reason it’s unwieldy to rely on the search function to find your ebooks is that I often can’t remember the titles or author names — only the subject or book cover. Even if I know the title, sometimes I can’t find it if the file is a PDF and doesn’t have a descriptive file name. With PDFs, GPB (like other apps) doesn’t typically have good metadata to search for. Collections would solve that problem by letting you browse within a smaller group of ebooks, but alas, GPB hasn’t implemented it yet.

Problem: GPB is a major memory hog

Ballpark-wise, I probably have the same amount of ebooks in GPB as I do in Kindle app, and yet GPB uses 3x as much internal memory as the Kindle app. ( This was true even before I changed the default download setting to the external card). Now, by saving things on my external card, it uses even less storage space.

Right now on my Samsung tablet:

  • Kindle uses 3.62 GB: 185 MB app, 1.25gb Data and 2.19gb SD card data,
  • Google Play Books uses 5.17 GB: 52.88MB app, 5.12 GB Data and 256KB SD card

The type of content I have on both devices isn’t that different. GPB contains somewhat more uploaded PDFs, while the Kindle app contains more ebooks with huge file size.

This leads me to another complaint not specific to GPB but which affects GPB the most. Consumers need a way to identify which ebook files are the biggest, so they can decide to delete them when needed. In Kindle, I created a special collection called “HUGE EBOOKS” containing files which I can easily delete if I need to. Unfortunately consumers can’t do this in GPB because Google never implemented the collections feature.

Seriously, all ebook apps need a way to SORT BY FILE SIZE or at least SHOW ALL FILES > 10 MB.

My 4 year old Samsung tablet has lots of storage space. (32 gigs internal, 64 gigs SD card). This is terrific! But I currently have 660MB free on internal storage and 7 gigs free on the external SD card. It is incredibly hard to figure out what is taking so much space and how to remove it. Google Play Books consumes more storage space than any app on my tablet, especially because it requires that all ebooks be downloaded into internal storage!

Again, that wouldn’t be so bad if I could see which GPB files are using the most space or if the app had better organization tools.

Problem: Easy Upload feature is no longer so Easy

In the last 6 months I have noticed something else wrong. At first guess, you’d think it was related to memory usage, but I’ve cleaned house several times both in GPB and the tablet itself, and the problem persisted. I’ve cleared cache, searched online for solutions and filed trouble tickets. No solution.

The Upload feature on GPB has just stopped working for me. Regardless of file size, I could upload things to GPB via the PC browser. In the Chrome browser on my PC, I can easily see uploaded material in GPB. I can even read the ebook in the browser. In the past, when you upload stuff to GPB on your browser, it could be on your device in a minute. Not anymore. Often it takes days or a week for uploaded content to appear on your device — if you are lucky.

This is clearly egregious behavior; it happens both to GPB on my phone and tablet. Perhaps it is specific to my account or the fact that I uploaded a lot of files in the past. But I have had absolutely no problems sending mobi, docx and PDFs to my cloud-based kindle and viewing them in different places.

You might assume that cloud-based computing is Google’s core competency. I actually have no problems using Google Drive, and in fact paid for a premium subscription.

On my Gdrive I have a folder consisting of epub files I found from public domain sources. I keep the folder on my local machine which is backed up on the cloud. If Google already has the epub file on the Gdrive, why does really Google need me to upload it to GPB?

It is possible to use a third party app on Google Docs to move an epub file to GPB. Several apps claim to be able to do this, but the last time I checked (more than a year ago), none of these apps succeeded in that task. Really, though, why is this so hard?

FBReader: A better network solution for Android

FBReader is a great ebook reading system that has been around forever. There’s a free version, but I quickly upgraded to the premium app.

Recently I used FBReader Network Library on Android. With FBREADER, you can read multiple file formats, and after uploading it, you files are saved in a special folder on your Google Drive (My Drive –> FBReader Network Reader). Simple, and it works! My first reaction was, “Thanks for being so easy!” and second, “If Fbreader can do it, why can’t GPB?”

Fbreader isn’t perfect. It doesn’t have collections either. It offers too many layout and design controls instead of just providing a publisher default. To download an ebook which you uploaded to the Network library, you need to click Open Network Library –> FBReader Book Search on your device. From there, you can sort ebooks by title/author or upload date. FBReader asks you to download ebooks individually (it won’t do it automatically).

Final Thoughts on the GPB Disaster

I keep waiting for Google Play Books to release a more user-friendly version that solves the problems I mentioned. So far I’ve been waiting for two years. In comparison, the Kindle app is light years ahead of competitors. Sure, it has market share and big budgets.

On the other hand, publishers already on GPB are getting better at synchronizing their sales across bookstores. (Maybe services like Draft 2 Digital are making this easy). There’s a market need for an ebook distributor as an alternative to Amazon. But Google Play Books ain’t it.

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