Publishers know they’re in a tough place when it comes to Google’s Book Search and Library initiatives. For all their posturing about copyright violations and compensation, the truth is that Google is doing the publishing industry a huge favor.
Here’s how I see it. First, there are a lot of books out there. All I need to do is look around my desk to prove this. There are more books published each year than anyone realizes. Most of these books fly so far under the radar, they don’t even register. This costs the publisher money, hurts the author, and don’t forget the trees. Pulping books doesn’t do much to clean the air.
Second, even if a consumer (I’ll use myself as an example) is aware of many of the books being published, there is no way I can discover what’s inside them, short of living in a book distribution warehouse. My local bookstores cannot keep up. Amazon’s program to “Look Inside” is great if I know what I’m looking for, but if I’m doing research, I’m using Google. I am. Sometimes maybe I go to Yahoo!, but mostly I’ve segregated things in my mind: Yahoo!, news; Google, research.
Finally — and I think this will be an increasingly important point — it’s all about the long tail of publishing. When Google digitizes libraries (and someone’s going to; if not Google, then the next Google), it will free up shelf space while providing an index of human knowledge. Let’s say, for example, that I’m looking for information on King George IV. One of the definitive (if flawed) texts on the so-called Prinny is J.B. Priestley’s The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency. This book is out of print, which is a shame for those of you not lucky enough to have a copy (I found mine at Powell’s in Portland). Just the pictures alone are worth it.
There’s a chance that this book will be republished in various editions, but as time goes by, it will surely be pushed aside in favor of other books. If a publisher is not willing to invest in the production expense necessary to reproduce this book — recalling that the images are just as important — then eventually this resource will disappear. A digital version will not likely match the bound-and-printed copy of the book, but today’s technology is pretty amazing. I can only imagine that it will improve. A good camera, full-text indexing, these are the tools that will allow us to create a true library of our humanity.
We cannot count on publishers to fulfill this role. They can’t — in addition to those books which are in the public domain (many being digitized by Project Gutenberg), there are books in copyright limbo. And books produced on typewriters — it would be a massive investment for even the wealthiest publisher to fully digitize back catalogs. On a go-forward basis, things will be simpler, but do we want to lose history? Publishers should be embracing Google’s goal of digitizing these works.
Ah yes, there is a downside: publishers want money. And that’s a fair enough prospect. Books fall into various buckets: public domain, copyright limbo, and under license. Google’s projects ostensibly make copyrighted works available (though, if you’ve used the service, you will discover that your access is quite limited), and copyright owners want to be paid. I fully support that — but must ask the question: if consumers can’t find the book in the first place, how much money will the publisher and author make?
If Google leverages these projects into a kind of print-on-demand business, I support that as well. Once they start selling copyrighted works, they must pay the copyright owners. There is no question there. There is a lot of potential here, and if you’ve been paying attention even a little bit, you know that the old models of distributing entertainment aren’t working quite so well anymore. It’s time for the publishing industry to face facts: consumers aren’t willing to play by the old rules.
Besides, for older titles, print-on-demand is a great option. You (the publisher or distributor) don’t want to keep physical stock on hand just in case a copy or two of a book is sold. The consumer may or may not want a physical copy of the book — in many cases, an electronic version would work. Heck, maybe you don’t even need the whole book. A chapter or two might do. There are ways for everyone to profit if you think outside the book. There are books out there that still have useful lives — it’s time to think about ways of connecting those works with consumers.
There is much hue and cry about how Google is a commercial entity and surely has a profit motive. Only the most naive of us would believe otherwise. But we should recall that this project does not come free to Google, either. While authors’ groups and publishers decry the commercial intent of a corporation, largely absent from the discussion is the announcement of a hint of an announcement of an industry initiative to engage in a project like this — for the sake of the art.
Publishers are actively seeking deals with other corporations, and those corporations are proudly ponying up cash. That’s great, and if there is money changing hands, I am eager to see this succeed (even more eager, if truth be told, to see how much trickles down to authors). This licensing of titles will necessarily only address a fraction of the books in the world. Is the goal, perhaps, to be selective in the knowledge we pass to future generations? Because if we don’t start soon, so much will be lost.
In the end, there may not be a perfect solution, but rather than suing and posturing, publishers should be working with Google to create a system that seems fair to everyone.