Remember the fear that Google would start a print on demand business and put all the publishers out of business? Well, Google appears to be getting into the bookselling business, but there’s no printing involved, nor are they cutting out publishers. Google’s new service will allow publishers to set their own price for online access to books. Readers won’t be able to save copies of the books on their computers nor will they be able to copy text from the books, and the books will only be viewable within the browser window. This looks like a great opportunity for publishers to provide online access to their books without having to set up their own systems. (via)
In April 1951, when Jack Kerouac fed the first pieces of what would become a 120-foot scroll of paper into his Underwood portable to write the first draft of his novel, On the Road, he was, in one sense, blowing up the typewriter to make his own primitive homemade word processor. Sixty years later, Kerouac’s publisher is, in its own quiet way, blowing up the book to make – what, exactly?
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I happened to notice recently, in my daily online wanderings, that the nominees have been announced for "The Seventh Annual Weblog Awards." As usual, the organizers have listed a couple dozen categories, and as usual the same handful of blogs, more or less, are in the running. Many of the usual suspects are there, Boing Boing, PostSecret, Dooce, Gizmodo, Instapundit, Daily Kos, Lifehacker, and the rest - blogs that are now big business, some of which are owned by big businesses.The omission of "literary bloggers" from this long list of nominees naturally seemed glaring to me, having had a front row seat for the last four or so years as an amorphous and very loosely affiliated movement of bloggers has greatly expanded the realm of literary discourse in the U.S. and elsewhere. And though there has sometimes been an unhealthy "us against them" mentality between bloggers and professional critics, in many ways this friction has melted away as critics have become bloggers themselves and as a number of talented bloggers have begun to invade the book pages, providing a pool of talent and a new voice to book review sections that were shrinking and stultified.This is a big deal. Bloggers have helped create a new literary discourse that benefits readers, writers, and critics - a place where reading and discussing books for pleasure can augment the sometimes joyless drudgery that newspaper criticism has become. (Note how Jerome Weeks, now of book/daddy, jumped from his regular newspaper gig: "So it'll be a relief to read for pleasure again. One reason it's particularly appealing these days is that it's so counter-culture -- so counter to our prevailing techno-bully rapid-response profit-margin mindset.").Yet we need those sometimes bullying newspapers. As Kassia wrote in a post in the early days of the LBC, "Books don't have endless windows opening for them." This sentiment was echoed in an Orlando Sentinel essay by movie critic Roger Moore late last year: "Reviewers, in general, are canaries in the print journalism coal mine, the first to go. Classical music, books, visual arts and dance are dispensed with, or free-lanced off the bottom-line. That's happened everywhere I've ever worked." But as the big windows close, and criticism sections shrink or disappear, hundreds of smaller windows have opened.In Kassia's LBC essay, she went on to write, "It's interesting to me that readers are leading the charge to discover and promote new, often overlooked fiction. Traditional avenues of literary coverage are necessarily limited in scope, even with the Internet." I have come to believe, and I hope people agree with me, that book blogging is more than just a hobby. I say this not in a self-promotional or self-aggrandizing way (so many others are better book bloggers than I), but looking at how the public discourse about books has changed over the last few years. So, the truth is, having thought about it, I'm not disappointed that not a single book blog - not even some of the best (TEV, Ed, Bookslut, Conversational Reading... I could go on and on) - was singled out for recognition by the Weblog Awards. Litblogs have somehow gone too far down the path of assimilation to be considered for such distinctions, I think. Book blogs and traditional book criticism have intermingled sufficiently that they are now, except in a few remaining dusty corners, one.My declaring it doesn't make it so, but perhaps now, the us versus them mentality between the bloggers and the professional critics is mostly behind us. Which is good, because there are so many more books still to write about.
My last post, on Google adding maps to its Google Books pages, generated some interesting discussion about digitizing books in the comments. I can think of many reasons why digitizing books is a good thing, while the motivations of the publishing houses and the Authors Guild in suing Google seem confused at best and craven at worst.One of the reasons why digitizing books is important is that it preserves the knowledge contained between the covers. Our libraries are filled with fragile books that require tremendous upkeep and are not as useful to students, scholars, and readers as they could be. This rationale is behind a new $2 million digitizing program at the Library of Congress that will focus on "brittle books." Among the books slated to be digitized are "American history volumes, U.S. genealogy and regimental histories that hold personal collections from the Civil War period, and six collections of rare books including the Benjamin Franklin Collection."Some may argue that this is apples and oranges, that publishers and Authors Guild are only interested protecting writers working now, but the lawsuits have in fact targeted the Google Books Library Project, not the Google Books Partner Program, which they are largely on board with. Those attacking Google charge that the company is running afoul of copyright law by scanning library books in their entirety even if Google only makes snippets of them available to the public, and, as Jeffrey Toobin's insightful article in the New Yorker makes clear, these suits threaten to cause a ripple effect that might not be in the public's best interest. Whatever the outcome of these suits, let's at least hope that our most fragile books get saved for posterity.
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.
As the saga surrounding digitizing books gets ever more convoluted, the Wall Street Journal is now reporting that Google is interested in offering book rentals. Apparently, Google has approached publishers about offering to rent digital versions of books for a week at 10% of the cover price. According to a News.com article (the WSJ article is subscribers only), an unidentified publisher said that 10% was too low. It sounds like an odd idea to me. I can't imagine paying to rent a book, when I could "rent" it for free from the library, but I'm also somewhat astonished that a publisher would say that 10% of the cover price is too cheap. Google would be able to rent out an infinite number of each title, and people - if they are so inclined - would be paying for something that they can get for free. The upside here seems huge for the publishers.(via)See Also: Amazon's digital book initiative: paying by the page and The publishers' big blunder