The Future of the Book

More Google Book hysteria

By posted at 8:15 pm on March 4, 2006 0

In today’s Guardian Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, rants about the danger presented by Google’s ongoing endeavor to digitize the world’s books. I’m sorry, but I just cannot understand the vehemence of the opposition to Google’s plan. Newton tries to catch our attention by invoking the spirit of Charles Dickens, which he claims is being denigrated by the small ads that Google places near the text of the books it scans, but really, for Newton and other publishers who oppose Google, this is about protecting their bottom line and it has nothing to do with the best interests of authors, Dickens or otherwise.

He begins by decrying Google’s “inappropriate” advertising. It’s very true that advertising can and does get out of hand in our modern world, but Newton is taking a particularly Draconian line to prove his point. Advertisements run in all of the world’s most prestigious magazines and newspapers, and we don’t call this “predation.” In fact it’s particularly amusing to me that Newton selects Dickens to focus on because many of Dickens’ novels first appeared in installments in magazines like Harper’s, which contained – surprise – advertisements for things like pianos and carpets and shirts. Scroll through the images of old issues of Harper’s on this page and you’ll catch glimpses of them on the margins, not all that different from the way Google does it.

But it’s not long before Newton gets to the real issue, money:

At one level all this is quite funny. At another, it is shocking. The worst thing is that the actual money paid to authors and publishers for these silly ads is negligible. So is the number of book purchases arising directly from these links (certainly they were when Google’s representative came to see me last autumn). Authors are being ripped off however you look at it. They need to say something about it, loudly.

This betrays how little Newton knows about what Google is doing. Google takes a cut of the revenues generated by those “silly ads” and the rest goes to the copyright holder. If the copyright holder’s take for a particular book is “negligible,” so is Google’s. Beyond the money, this is also about Old Media’s desire for control versus New Media’s push for openness. Newton can’t see the potential monetary benefit of making his books more accessible to the public. If it were up to him, we’d have to drop a coin in before flipping through a book at a bookstore. Newton’s real motives become clear when he reveals that he’s not really against digitizing books and making money off of them, he’s just against someone else doing it:

Publishers also have the responsibility to make sure that when it comes to hosting electronic content in future, it is their own websites that host the downloads and the scans of text and audio. There is no reason to hand this content to third-party websites.

What I would say to Newton is go for it, no one is stopping you, and while you are fretting over your books being stolen, Google is digitizing the world’s knowledge so that future generations will have easy access to it – well, unless it was published by Bloomsbury, apparently. The point of Newton’s diatribe, which is “an edited version of a speech given on Thursday to the Guardian Review’s World Book Day forum,” is that we should boycott Google to get them back for their trespasses. Good luck with that.

Before I close this, I want to clarify one thing. Newton implies that what Google is doing is bad for authors and not just publishers. I don’t think that’s true at all. Google’s effort – in the absence of a viable effort by publishers – can introduce readers to books and allow authors explore new ways of getting their books to readers and new ways of making money from their writing. The Internet has shaken the foundations of the music, film and news businesses and changed them all – for the better, I think – and there’s no reason why the publishing industry should be exempt from this.

See also: The publishers’ big blunder, Richard Nash of Soft Skull on Google Print, HarperCollins starts its own little island

Update: Just spotted Hissy Cat’s post which goes even further in picking apart Nigel Newton’s ridiculous speech. It’s worth reading.

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