Not much news here, but a BBC story suggests that, as part of its digital book initiative, Google may sell e-books sometime in the future. CEO Eric Schmidt – being extra careful in this area it seems – said “that this would depend on permission from copyright holders.” Google already provides links to online booksellers from its book pages, but, as far as I can tell, this would be the first time that Google was selling books directly.
At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that “given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years’ worth of plagiarists – giants and forgotten hacks alike – who have all escaped detection until now.” He also predicts that “in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted.”
If Dan Reetz didn’t exist, it would be necessary for Cory Doctorow to invent him.
I met Reetz at New York Law School’s D is for Digitize conference over the weekend — two days devoted to the Google Books settlement and its future. It was a room filled mostly with lawyers and professors, along with librarians, publishers, a contingent of students… and Dan Reetz.
I have to paint the picture. He comes into the conference room — big, beautiful and brand-new, almost antiseptic — in a dark coat, hefting a huge black duffel bag.
Out of the bag comes a flat, mechanical-looking form of no recognizable use. It’s mutant Ikea.
It’s a transformer.
In a flurry of twists and clicks, Reetz folds it out and snaps it together —
— and when it’s finally assembled, it looks something like this:
It’s pure 21st-century ingenuity. Reetz designed his first book scanner because, as a grad student at North Dakota State, he was appalled by textbook prices. Then he built it, in two days, from old digital cameras, cardboard, and scrap parts; a friend wrote the page-processing software.
Reetz’s latest model, the one pictured above, is built not from junk but from laser-cut plywood, and it folds down and fits into an overhead luggage bin. It’s perfect for book-scanning special ops.
Now, line Dan Reetz up with the other Dan at the conference: Dan Clancy, who directs Google Books. To review: Google has scanned more than 10 million books, the many of them still copyrighted but long out-of-print, and therefore unavailable unless you can get to a big university library. The Google Books settlement provides one path to make those books available to everyone, online.
So at one end of the spectrum, we have Google’s ambition and scale: the vision of a complete digital library and the unique ability to actually pull it off. At the other end, we have Dan Reetz’s ingenuity and openness: the delight of a $200 book scanner and a PDF parts list ready for printing if you want to make your own.
Although there was plenty of teeth-gnashing in that conference room — and truly, there’s a lot not to like about the Google Books settlement — I think the Reetz-Clancy continuum augurs good things for the future of books. On one end, the recognition that books have to live online now, and that publishing has to operate at internet scale. On the other, the passion for (obsession with?) independence and the cottage-industry craftiness that’s been the best part of book publishing for so long already.
It was encouraging to have both ends in the same room — part of the same conversation.
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 islandUpdate: Just spotted Hissy Cat’s post which goes even further in picking apart Nigel Newton’s ridiculous speech. It’s worth reading.
John Updike’s off the cuff bashing of the ongoing efforts to digitize books has been reverberating across the media landscape. The Washington Post has an account of Updike’s remarks from BEA, where he singled out Kevin Kelly’s lengthy New York Times Magazine piece on the topic, calling Kelly’s view of the future a “grisly scenario.”For the record, I think Kelly overstated the promise of digitized books. As futurist-types so often do, Kelly purports to explain the wonders of technology but also revels in the idea that he can terrify the technophobes. For a little perspective on Kelly, Wired’s founding editor, read his piece “We Are the Web,” marking the tenth anniversary of the Netscape IPO and the start of the Internet era. It’s fascinating stuff, but what can you really do with it except be a little uneasy about what mankind might unleash in the future. It’s science fiction – good science fiction, even – disguised as journalism. When discussing the future of books, forecasting their demise is just an attempt to stir the pot.The real future of books will be a lot less startling. If I can restate what I’ve written in the brief conversation that has occurred in the comments of my previous post, in my opinion the digitization of books isn’t as exciting as those shouting for or against it would have you think, at least not in the near term. The types of books that will be better served by digitization – textbooks, reference books, and works in the technical realm – will thrive in this new medium, as it will allow for notetaking, searchabilty, and other features that will add to their value. At the same time, the threat of piracy is minimal. Books are not easily digitized like music and movies are. There’s no way around the hours of labor it would take to digitize just one shelf full. As a result, companies and institutions are doing the digitizing, and thus it’s highly unlikely that they will make it easy for the books to be used and traded outside of their walled systems. Finally, the digitizing of books is good for research – gathering a list of books that mention a particular person or thing – and for art. In this week’s Time, Sean Wilsey does a great job of explaining how the digitization of books furthers writing in that it allows writers to more easily discover books that can inform their writing. But neither research nor art are motivations to digitally plunder the book industry.Bringing us full circle, today’s New York Times arrived containing an interview with Updike, who discussed his new novel Terrorist, and interviewer Charles McGrath leads off with Updike’s aversion to the Internet, and his failed attempts to use it for research. I admire Updike, and I’m intrigued by his new book, but I think it’s fair to say that his opinions on the future of books won’t end up holding much weight down the line.
After years of fearmongering and borderline hysteria, the anti-Internet rhetoric of the publishing companies is softening considerably, according to Reuters. In 2005, we saw publishers banding together to go up against Google Books (then called Google Print). Patricia Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers, epitomized the prevailing thought at the time: “If Google can make…copies, then anyone can. Anybody could go into a library and start making digital copies of anything.” A few months later, Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, attempted to inspire a boycott against Google. “Authors are being ripped off however you look at it,” he declared.But, of course, none of this ever came to pass. As I said at the time: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.These same thoughts are now being echoed by Penguin’s top executive John Makinson: “There is a lot going on in the music publishing industry that is not going on in the book industry. Consumers don’t want albums they want tracks and in publishing people want books not chapters” – a perfectly sensible assessment that should have been made a long time ago.I think, though, that publishers are fully awakening to the fact that opportunities on the Internet to raise awareness about their books far outweigh the threats. Even used books, which have a huge market on the Internet, are not eating into profits as feared.From a publicity and marketing standpoint, publishers are clearly on board with the Internet. Regardless of where the disappearance of newspaper book review sections registers on your fear meter, publishers are hedging their bets and spreading their efforts well beyond print, with creative author websites, outreach to online communities of readers, and a proliferation of all sorts of online writing contests and publisher blogs. Some publishers have learned to play nice with Google, while others have made legitimate efforts to digitize their books on their own. As a sign of how far we’ve come, two years ago making the entire Booker Prize shortlist available online was unthinkable. But publishers have come to the perfectly sensible realization that “if readers like a novel tasted on the internet, they may just be inspired to buy the actual book.”It may be too soon to close the book on this saga, but I think it’s safe to say that reason has triumphed. Publishers are finally realizing that, while the internet has forced great change upon their industry, the threats faced have been far less dire than those faced by the music and film industries. At the same time, in a world where cultural content has been elbowed out of newspapers and magazines, the Internet offers easier access to the many people who do care about books but are underserved by traditional media. With fear behind them, publishers are stepping out bravely into a new world.
The New York Times highlighted the trend last year and it will no doubt be even bigger this year: when it comes to ebooks, what was once a day of rest from shopping is now a booming day for ebook sales. That’s because when all those Kindles (selling a million a week), Nooks (sales up 85%), iPads, and other tablets get unwrapped, the first thing to do is to fire up and download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a quarter of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. One in four books, incredible.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, here are the top-ten most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2011. You’ll notice that these aren’t all that different from the overall Millions favorites. The big change this year is the emergence of the “Kindle Single” format, which offers long-form journalism and short stories at a bite-sized price point. Three of those lead our list. Interestingly, while those Singles are expanding what’s available at lower price points, publishers are pushing the high end of the price range higher, focusing especially on some of the year’s highest profile books, four of which land on our list despite going for (as of this writing) more than the magic $9.99 number.
The Enemy by Christopher Hitchens ($1.99)
The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett ($2.99)
The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99)
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman ($9.99)
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ($9.99)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami ($14.99)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides ($12.99)
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson ($12.99)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins ($4.69)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace ($14.99)
The Late American Novel edited by yours truly and Jeff Martin ($8.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the new IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.
As Google stokes controversy with its Google Print service, Amazon has unveiled its own digital book offering, one that’s sure to make the publishers happy. Amazon is launching two services, Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade. According to an AP story on the new products: With its new Amazon Pages service, Amazon.com Inc. plans to let customers to buy portions of a book – even just one page – for online viewing. A second program, Amazon Upgrade, will offer full online access when a traditional text is purchased. Both services are expected to begin next year.CEO Jeff Bezos shared some addition details as well: For Amazon Pages … the cost for most books would be a few cents per page, although readers would likely be charged more for specialized reference works. Under Amazon Upgrade, anybody purchasing a paper book could also look at the entire text online, at any time, for a “small” additional charge, Bezos said. For instance, a $20 book might cost an extra $1.99. And Bezos offered up a quote that was most certainly directed at Google’s recent run ins with publishers: “We see this as a win-win-win situation: good for readers, good for publishers and good for authors.” The story is also filled with positive comments from different publishers and an Authors Guild representative. Random House released a statement saying it plans to “work with online booksellers, search engines, entertainment portals and other appropriate vendors to offer the contents of its books to consumers for online viewing on a pay-per-page-view basis.”So, it seems to me that a showdown between Amazon and Google may be shaping up in the digital books market. Will publishers opt out of Google Print en masse and back Amazon, who, in their eyes, seems to be offering a more secure revenue stream? More importantly, are people ready to pay for books by the page, and will they turn their backs on Amazon for trying to spoil Google’s free books party?Meanwhile, at the Official Google Blog, the Googlers are extolling the virtues of the public domain books that have recently been made available at Google Print. The post links to a number of searches that show some of the breadth of material that is now available at Google Print. Note that they are positioning this as “Preserving Public Domain Books.”Previously: The publishers’ big blunder
Apple’s launch last week of the iPad has ushered in a new era of competition in the publishing industry as tech giants expand their footprint in the oldest of old media, books.
Interestingly, at least among serious readers and industry watchers, a skirmish on the margins has taken the spotlight. On Friday, Amazon unilaterally and without any explanatory public announcement, removed all books by publisher Macmillan from its virtual shelves. This included both ebook and paper editions and impacted books as varied as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.
At the heart of Amazon’s move was a dispute over pricing. Essentially, Amazon, with its massive footprint in the publishing industry, is continually trying to dictate terms to publishers in order to maximize profits. Macmillan, seeing Apple (and therefore competition for Amazon) on the horizon, decided to hold its ground and retaliated.
As a result, two models are now in play. Under Amazon’s current model, it utilizes its near monopoly position to take an extremely steep wholesalers’ discount (up to 70%) when it buys books from publishers, and it sets prices where it wants, often offering books at bargain prices in order to draw shoppers into Amazon while still eking out a profit.
The opposing model is the agency model that treats Amazon not as a wholesaler but merely a sales force. The publisher sets the prices, and Amazon takes a 30% commission of whatever that price is. As best I can tell, the push for the agency model only applies to ebooks. Apple is touting this model with the iBook offering on the new iPad, and MacMillan intends to extend these terms to all outlets that sell its ebooks. (For more on how all this works, check out Charles Stross’s informative piece.)
For Amazon, it’s clear why the current model is preferred. The only way it can differentiate (and lure new customers into its Kindle ecosystem) is based on price. If the agency model succeeds, technically any other player out there with the wherewithal could come along and sell ebooks on exactly the same terms that Amazon does.
This is probably good news for readers. In the long-term it will spur competition in the ebook and ereader space that will inevitably push away from DRM, closed ecosystems, and expensive hardware. In the short term, however, those readers demanding that ebooks be priced at $9.99 or less are going to be frustrated. If publishers can set pricing, they are going to set it higher than Amazon would (In a memo obtained by Publishers Lunch, Macmillan has said it aims to price its ebook new releases between $12.99 and $14.99). These higher prices could definitely slow the growth of the ebook market, something I suspect may mainstream publishers wouldn’t be too upset about. On the other hand, publishers would have the ability to adjust prices, and if lowering prices ends up increasing volume and maximizing profits, they’ll undoubtedly do it.
It’s worth noting as well how Amazon has responded to Macmillan in this case and how a pattern of behavior is emerging. We noted nearly a year ago, when dicussing both