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Google Book Search: Not a Threat to Publishing

It’s not surprising that large chunks of the book publishing industry have gotten up in arms ever since Google announced its intentions to scan the world’s books and make them available online for free. After all, the publishing industry is not really known for adopting modern practices all that quickly. Book publishing is a grand old industry, and top publishing houses seem more invested in preserving the status quo than in adapting for the changing world.

book search illustration

But, when the publishing industry got up in arms against Google’s plans to facilitate the searching of books, their knee-jerk reaction against the new paradigm caused them to miss the fact that Google’s basic proposal really isn’t all that revolutionary. There’s another institution that has taken published books and made them available to the public. For Free. For thousands of years. Libraries!

Think about it — libraries have made the accessing and reading of books easy and free for ages. Libraries have long broken down barriers so that users can access and read books and other information, regardless of original costs. And, somehow they’ve managed to do this without bankrupting the publishing industry in the process.

Maybe if the publishers were to recognize this fundamental similarity between Google and traditional libraries they would quit feeling threatened and stop resisting progress. What would everyone think if the publishing industry were to sue libraries for making their content free and open-access? They’d be laughed out of court! Would anyone claim that libraries were infringing on publishers’ copyrights?!?

I know, I know — technically, Google’s scanning and display of pages and text from others’ books is a sort of unauthorized reproduction of the original works, and could therefore be found to be copyright infringement. However, if you look at this as merely a different type of library, it starts to look like a use which should not be disallowed. If a library doesn’t damage a publisher’s ability to sell books and make a profit, then the argument that “Google’s Book Search will cause damage” begins to look like a histrionic exercise in semantics.

Okay, Okay — I know there’s more of a difference than that. There’s some key differences between brick-and-mortar libraries and Google Book Search. The library has some natural barriers to open access to books. Users have to physically travel to visit the books housed within them. Libraries typically have only one or two copies of any given book, so the entire community can’t check a book out at the same time. And, thousands of libraries will purchase copies a book in order to make it available to their local communities, so publishers profit some off of libraries.

Even so, I believe the basic nature of the book search has enough in common with traditional libraries to validly argue that publishers have nothing to lose.

I think that the way to manage the conflict between publishers’ intellectual property interests and the public’s interest in open access to information should be handled by a short time limit on when books may be scanned and made freely available. Keep a book out of the free book search for two or three years, and the majority of possible sales will have largely passed already. Again, I know – I know — books will pass into secondary printings, and other distributions — remaindering sales and such.

I contend that those sales really wouldn’t be impacted by by free book search. There’s still sufficient numbers of us who want the tactile sensation and experiential enjoyment of reading the printed book. I’m still going to be buying the books! But, there’s lots of times when I’d like to be able to search the entire corpus of English books to find particular info.

Better yet, there’s lots of cases where people would be inclined to buy books, if they knew they existed. Book search allows one to easily explore. For example, one could discover all the anthologies which include stories by one’s favorite authors. Find all reference books about your favorite subject matter. And the best tools of all: eventually it should be easy to find books which are thematically or stylistically similar to your faves (Amazon.com already has robust features like this).

Oh, and there’s actually independent evidence that I might be right about this. Just in the last week, a news report came out from publishers who believe that book search has been beneficial to them. They report more sales from their backlist and current catalogs as a result of book search on Google and Amazon.

Publishing World, wake up and smell the contemporary coffee! Recognize that Google Book Search is the new incarnation of the Library for the 21st Century! Adapt to the new paradigm and realize that this isn’t a threat to you! If you manage this right, you may profit from it. If you cannot adapt, your species may not survive in the modern business world.

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