The publishers’ big blunder

October 21, 2005 | 3 min read

On Wednesday, five publishers, McGraw-Hill Cos. Inc., Pearson Plc’s Pearson Education and Penguin Group (USA) units, Viacom Inc.’s Simon & Schuster and John Wiley & Sons Inc., filed suit for copyright infringement against Google’s Google Print service. What is Google Print? Google has scanned the full text of thousands of books and made them searchable, and as the database of included titles becomes larger and larger, one can imagine that future Web users will find answers to their questions not just on the world’s Web pages but in the world’s books. If a given book is under copyright, Google Print will only show a small excerpt – perhaps a few pages or a few paragraphs. Books not under copyright can be perused in full. Google is working with some publishers as they do this, but they are also working to scan the contents of some of the country’s major libraries. It is the interaction with the libraries, which circumvents the publishers, that has the publishers so angry. At the heart of this controversy, though, the publishers are suing Google Print for the same reasons that other big media companies have fought to retain control over their content: ignorance and fear. From a recent Reuters article via the Washington Post:

“If Google can make…copies, then anyone can,” Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, said in a phone interview. “Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything,” she said.

It sounds pretty scary, but is this a realistic concern? Google or not, the technology currently exists for anyone to start digitizing the books in the library or in their own homes, but I don’t see this happening, and it’s not because people are afraid of lawsuits from publishers, it’s because people aren’t that interested in digitized copies of books. Google, on the other hand, is attempting to do something constructive by scanning all of these books. They have the ability to make the world’s text (read: knowledge) searchable.

What’s even more outrageous about publishers’ opposition to Google Print is that they actually stand to benefit financially from it. This isn’t anything like “stealing” music, this is Google marketing and selling their books for them. Google even explains how this works on their information page for publishers. In fact, it’s so simple it only takes one sentence for Google to sell it:

Sign up for the Google Print publisher program to attract new readers and boost book sales, earn new revenue from Google contextual ads, and interact more closely with your customers through direct ‘Buy this Book’ links back to your website.

Publishers are turning down the opportunity to earn – for the first time ever – advertising dollars based on the content of their books. Publishers are also keeping readers from sampling books before they buy them and publishers are turning down Google’s offer to send these potential customers right to their online doorsteps (or the doorsteps of other booksellers.) All because they are irrationally afraid that readers are going to go broke buying paper and ink trying to set up their own bootleg bookshops.

Just as musicians have come out against the music industry in the debate on file sharing, at least one author is speaking out against the publishing industry’s fight against Google Print. After Meghann Marco, author of the humorous Field Guide to the Apocalypse: Movie Survival Skills for the End of the World, was told by her publisher, Simon & Schuster, that they wouldn’t allow her book to be a part of Google Print, she wrote a letter to Jason Kottke. From there, Marco’s plight has been publicized on dozens of blogs including big guys like Boing Boing and GalleyCat, and now – if you read some of the comments on the Kottke post, you’ll see – readers everywhere are scratching their heads wondering why in the world publishers are going down this path.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.