Wednesday, April 01, 2009

More Thoughts On Google

Yesterday I posted here about two agents with very different attitudes toward the Google settlement and whether it is a positive move for authors. I promised to offer my view today.

I've been posting about Google Book Search for almost four years and--for most of that time--pointing out the benefits it would offer writers. Back in 2005, I said this:
Now, just think for a minute. Let's say you're a writer who wrote the definitive book on how to cook pork. However, your book has been out of print for years. Then comes next summer, when consumers are avoiding beef (because of high cholesterol and mad cow) and avoiding chicken (because of the avian flu) in favor of the other white meat. A Google search of "pork recipes" turns up your book along with four lines of text with mention of a great recipe. In addition, a link sends the searcher to the only cookbook store that still carries copies of your book. Would you be glad or mad?
About two weeks after I wrote that, Kevin Maney, the technology columnist for USA Today said here:
Publishers and authors had better get on this bandwagon, because the drive toward putting books online is not going away. Yahoo and Microsoft have jumped into book scanning. The book industry needs to get out in front of this and be a part of it — and benefit from it.
I cheered for Google Book Search until October 24, 2007 when I quoted a line from an article in the New York Times:
Libraries that agree to work with Google must agree to a set of terms, which include making the material unavailable to other commercial search services.
Even though I understood Google's desire to block its largest competitor--Microsoft--I was seriously disturbed by this contract clause. I didn't like Google's obviously anti-competitive effort.

In February, 2007, Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker, wrote a long article here about Google's quest for the universal library. Remember, this was almost two years ago . . . long before the actual announcement of the settlement. Here's a quote from Toobin's article:
. . . a settlement that serves the parties’ interests does not necessarily benefit the public. “It’s clearly in both sides’ interest to settle,” Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Stanford Law School, said . . . Google wants to be able to get this done, and get permission to resume scanning copyrighted material at all the libraries. For the publishers, if Google gives them anything at all, it creates a practical precedent, if not a legal precedent, that no one has the right to scan this material without their consent. That’s a win for them. The problem is that even though a settlement would be good for Google and good for the publishers, it would be bad for everyone else.”
Google was happy to settle. By settling, they got to go back to scanning books and, at the same time, created a precedent that will help prevent competitors from muscling into their territory.
"If Google says to the publishers, ‘We’ll pay,’ that means that everyone else who wants to get into this business will have to say, ‘We’ll pay,’ ” Lessig said. “The publishers will get more than the law entitles them to, because Google needs to get this case behind it. And the settlement will create a huge barrier for any new entrants in this field.”
So, now, any future competitor to Google Book Search will not only have to take on the enormous expense of scanning the world's books, but also agree to pay the publishers for a listing in what amounts to a giant card catalog. A giant card catalog that benefits those publishers (and their authors) by drawing attention to their books . . . even those books that are long out of print.

Writers have traditionally had a very small window in which to sell books before they were removed from the shelves of retailers. After that, an authors' only hope for attracting new readers was through remainder sales or used book sales. And, remember, authors don't earn royalties on used book sales and very little, if any, on remainder sales.

Google's initiative offered authors and publishers an opportunity to breathe new life into out-of-print books. Leave it to the Authors Guild--with its usual retro stance on anything innovative
--to decide to sue Google.

Great move, guys. I haven't seen business acumen like that since GM decided to kill the electric car. And how'd that work out for them?

Sure, in the short term, Google will pay authors for the right to list their books on the search engine, and the publishing industry will sell books that might otherwise never have earned another penny in sales.

But those idiots who sued Google have helped to build a tall wall protecting the search engine from its competitors. It's unlikely that any contender will be able to scale that wall now that they will not only have to pay the cost of scanning books but also have to pay publishers a licensing fee.

IMHO, the public is not served by Amazon and Google's monolithic control over large parts of the publishing industry.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

It's hard to watch the companies with the most money continually get what they want, which will make them more money.