Google: 1, Publishers: 0

Is the printed word on the way out? And are schemes like Amazon’s ‘search inside’ feature and the Google book-scanning project hastening the end? So, a German court threw out a publisher’s lawsuit against Google; the publisher claimed that Google scanning their books would be a copyright infringement, but the court maintained they were merely doing what all search engines do, and that (under German law at least), copyright was not being infringed.

I’ve mentioned this subject before. As a library employee, people expect me to be opposed to the digitisation of the ‘complete works of mankind’, especially some of my co-workers. As a life-long bookworm, current book reviewer and aspiring writer, it might make even less sense that I feel this way. Surely this project will kill off the publishing industry once and for all?

I’m not so sure it will, you know. After all, despite what the record companies claim, the peer-to-peer and downloading revolution hasn’t done their sales figures or profit margins any harm. But it has changed the distribution of titles that they are shifting; smaller artists are easier to find now, which means they’re getting a better crack of the whip. I’m no economist, but plenty of clued-up people have looked into this phenomenon, which is becoming known as ‘The Long Tail’. The future is selling smaller numbers of a greater variety of products; aiming for niche markets as opposed to the next number one smash hit. The recent decline in Hollywood blockbuster successes can be cited as evidence here, too.

But books – surely they’re a different kettle of fish, eh? Well, no, I don’t think so.

There is actually evidence to show that giving away free ebooks actually helps shift more of the real thing. Cory Doctorow has done alright with it, as has Charles Stross. And the recently departed Jim Baen saw the logic, and made a good bit of business out of it at the same time. It’s the ultimate in confidence marketing: ‘It’s so good, we’re willing to give you the content for free, because we know you’ll want to buy the artifact.’ And it seems to work.

But where the Google project will really make a difference is in the more obscure textbooks, especially older ones and ones that have a small readership base. Books like that are not only hideously expensive (Roberts’ ‘History of Science Fiction’ that I reviewed the other day is over £50 on Amazon, because the publisher know they won’t sell very many copies), but rarely go into a second print run because it isn’t economically justifiable. Because of the way copyright works, that means a book can languish in obscurity only a few years after publication, despite the fact that if people could find out what was in it, they might well want a copy (or part of one).

And this is where print-on-demand comes in. At the moment, POD is viewed as being one step above vanity presses – and to be fair, the lack of editing or quality control being displayed at the moment makes this somewhat justifiable. But think of what the technology could do to revitalise backcatalogues. A book written twenty years ago that didn’t sell too well is now only going to be found in second hand shops, and then only if you’re lucky. But if there was a digital copy, you could buy a meatspace version from a POD outlet as a one-shot, or simply pay a small fee for an ebook version. All of a sudden, you’ve got a way to make a book that wasn’t an immediate smash success into an ongoing marketable item. OK, so it may not make millions, but it will be out there, available, potentially earning money on the infinite virtual shelves of the internet.

Furthermore, this would be a way of preserving important historical documents and texts permanently, while still allowing anyone to read them at leisure. The British Library would be a lot less uptight about people reading their rare tomes if the things never had to go anywhere physically to be read and dissected. I’m not advocating the destruction of books, I’m advocating an expansion of their usefulness, availability and lifespan; this dialectic is neatly fictionalised in the recent Vernor Vinge novel, ‘Rainbows End’, as it happens. The ‘universal library’ is a way to achieve this – access to every book there is, no matter how rare, old, crumbling, obscure, or discredited. How can that be a bad thing?

OK, so as the ebook formats improve, maybe paper will die out (which wouldn’t be so terrible, from an environmental POV at least). But DRMing files and preventing the Google project won’t stop that happening, any more than extolling the virtues of horse-drawn carriages would have stopped the rise of the motor-car. The times are changing, and that makes people who are stuck in old business models (publishers, and especially libraries) very edgy, because they can feel the status quo slipping away, and with change comes the need to adapt. This change is unavoidable; surely better to embrace it and work with it now, adapting to the new paradigms, than stand in front of a juggernaut waving your fist for pedestrian rights? The artists and creators, on the other hand, have nothing to fear; theirs could be a future where the middle-man becomes unnecessary, and they are free to create and market their own work however they choose. Art as democracy. Smells good to me, as a consumer and an aspiring creator.

Well, this being a blog and all, it’s just my opinion. I know for a fact there are some serious book-readers who come here regularly, and I’d be interested to know where they stand on the issue. As the Manic Street Preachers once entitled an album, ‘this is my truth; now show me yours.’

2 thoughts on “Google: 1, Publishers: 0”

  1. A potential for higher literacy rates?
    A potential for less paper being used?

    Sounds good to me.

    You never can believe anything you read in the press about this kind of thing (or anything?). First the music single was going to die and the the iPod Shuffle generation came along spelling the end for albums apparently.

  2. Some statistics show the album as a standard format *is* dying; people are more interested in cherry-picking the tunes they actually like and leaving the dross, a model that download purchasing encourages. Which will hopefully mark a return to the days when you didn’t have to skip half the tunes on an album to hear the ones that didn’t make you grind your teeth in rage…
    …bonus! 🙂

Leave a Reply