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.”
One of last year’s big stories, the publishers’ battle with Google over control of digitized books, has been on the back burner in recent months, but an aggressive move by HarperCollins is pushing it back into the spotlightIn late 2005, Harper, already vocal about its displeasure with Google over the search engine giant’s digital book initiative, announced that it would take its own separate approach, building its own little island, as I wrote at the time.Since then, we haven’t gotten too many updates on Harper’s progress. On Thursday, however, the publisher announced that it would partner with LibreDigital, a division of newspaper digitizing firm NewsStand, while also making a “strategic investment” in NewsStand, with Harper president Brian Murray joining NewsStand’s board of directors.We also got an update on how far Harper has progressed over the last year in its efforts to digitize its books. The company’s press release announcing the deal indicates that it has digitized “more than 10,000 books and has enabled the ‘Browse Inside’ application for several thousand.” The WSJ in its writeup (Sub. Req.) puts that total number of books digitized at 12,000, with 2,000 of those being online now. Based on these numbers, the publisher is making progress, if not at the pace of Google, which based on its contract with the California state university library system could be capable of scanning as many as 3,000 books a day. Harper has a backlist of 20,000 books, with 3,500 new titles published each year, and this new effort will likely enable the publisher to finish its digitizing efforts sooner than it would have otherwise. In addition, LibreDigital’s technology will better enable Harper to store and manage these digital editions.In spite of being at odds with one another, to a certain extent the intentions and efforts of Google and the publishers don’t entirely overlap. As the technology has evolved to facilitate the scanning of large quantities of books, Harper and other publishers are desperate to exert control over the digital versions of their books, allowing them to add value to their catalog by either selling digital books or by using those digital books to entice readers to buy the hard copies. The publishers’ biggest fear is that Google will cannibalize their sales by giving the goods away for free.Google, meanwhile, is more interested in providing as complete a record of the world’s published work as possible. To be sure, there is a profit motive here – Google has made its billions by helping us navigate the information it organizes for us – but the upside, for readers (and society, even) would be the vast store of human knowledge at our fingertips. The fact that a number of university libraries have cooperated with Google (for the Library Project portion of Google Book Search) would seem to indicate that librarians, who know a thing or two about making information accessible, are enthusiastic about Google’s plan. And, as such, its fairly easy to argue that Google’s book scanning efforts would hurt publishers little more than libraries do. As exciting as Google’s book initiatives could be (and they certainly are pretty good already), it appears as though the dream of a universally accessible online library will be forever hamstrung by publishing companies and copyright law.
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.
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.
The sky is falling. The king is dead. And, oh, by the way, the barbarians are at the gates. Or at least, that’s what a recent spate of opinion pieces bemoaning the increasing morbidity of literary criticism would have you believe. Although the whinging and general hand wringing has been going on for years now, the trend seems to have picked up steam in the last few weeks (perhaps as a result of blogs celebrating their ten year anniversary?), with a panoply of blustering critics and journalists thundering to decry the downfall of civilization as they know it.Are the reports of literary criticism’s death an exaggeration? There is no question that the space devoted to book coverage in traditional print media is in decline. With a number of papers, including such stalwarts as the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reducing or entirely eliminating their book sections, it’s understandable that the old guard would set up a hue and cry about the fate of literary culture in the modern age. But the recent comments by critics Morris Dickstein at Critical Mass and Richard Schickel in the LA Times, rather than confront the real problems facing book reviews, amount to little more than a bitter rearguard action against the rise of literary culture on the Internet.The problems faced by book reviews are not unique. Rather, they are a manifestation of a problem confronting all forms of traditional media: the Internet as Shiva, creator and destroyer of business and cultural paradigms. Is it any coincidence that the recent spate of articles bemoaning the loss of book reviews across the country is paralleled by articles bemoaning the death of the music industry? As uber-producer Rick Rubin points out in a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “…the world has changed. And the industry has not.”Of course, old guard naysayers will continue to say their nays, unwilling, or unable, to accept the fact that the world is moving on without them. And no doubt, manufacturers of the horse-drawn buggy had a hard time coping with the advent of the automobile. But their objections didn’t serve to stay the tide of transformation, for better and worse, that cars brought with them.What the book review Cassandras, with their predictions of the death of American literary culture, seem to forget is that it is the traditional newspaper itself, not just the book review, that is fighting for its very existence. When complaining about the diminishing coverage of books in print media, book critics and reviewers (and writers) are simply fighting over the deck chair with the best view of the iceberg. As Max pointed out in an earlier post, it’s not what readers want that matters to today’s newspapers, it’s what shareholders want; and book reviews, for all of their merits, don’t add much to the bottom line.To the critics, however, this isn’t a sign of a changing economic reality, but an omen of literary apocalypse. Book culture in freefall. But writing on books has not dried up or disappeared. It has simply pulled up its stakes and moved to greener, electronic pastures. And this, to the critics, is precisely the problem. The Internet, as a medium for written expression, is in their minds inferior to the printed word.One would think that critics would welcome the advent of a medium where the cost of publication was not proportional to the amount of paper used. Yet many find it impossible to separate journalism, whether literary or otherwise, from the physical artifact of the newspaper or magazine. The success of popular online magazines like Slate and Salon (both of which publish frequent and useful book reviews) should prove that one can exist without the other, yet many critics see themselves locked in a Manichean struggle between “print journalism,” and the “Web.” On one hand, they concede the need for newspapers to find a new business model (and almost invariably insist this model must be electronic – although if not Web-based, then what, telegraph?), but on the other they see journalism as “mortally threatened by the Web.” How can the average person brook such cognitive dissonance? One can almost see the smoke billowing out of their ears as they write.Many old-guard critics, like Dickstein and Schickel and even writers (Richard Ford, with his dismissal of bloggers as “sitting in a basement in Terre Haute,” comes immediately to mind) don’t have much patience for new media. Shickel, for his part, declares blogs are not true writing, but mere “speech”:The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.What, I wonder, does he make of US Weekly? Or the book reviews in Maxim? Surely even a mind as “superior” and possessed of “disciplined taste” (and those quotation marks aren’t just for show) as Shickel’s can conceive of an online world where, as in the print world, good writing exists alongside bad. And what claim to permanence, I wonder, do his movie reviews for Time – Does Time even publish legitimate criticism? – and other print venues really have? No more, I would hazard, than the immortality conferred on a blogger’s writing by Google.These objections, however, only serve to direct attention away from the critics’ real complaint: the increasing democratization of criticism and the accompanying arrival of a new generation of literary gatekeepers. The problem for them is not that literary discourse has disappeared – if anything the Internet has served to deepen and expand it – but that anyone can participate. Certainly, as critics are quick to assert, all opinions are not equal (although one does wonder who has anointed their opinions superior), but it is unwise to mistake humble origins for lack of merit. Although not everyone has had the luxuries of upbringing and education that might have allowed them to become professional literary critics, humble origins do not necessarily denote a lack of discerning taste or cultivated knowledge. Content, as Steve Wasserman, former editor of the LA Times Book Review, very rightly points out in an excellent article about the mystery of the disappearing book reviews, is king. The beauty of the Internet, and the threat that it poses to the professional establishment, is that it allows readers access to that content regardless of whether it was written by a trained literary critic on paid assignment or by an auto mechanic who has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Proust.And who serves as the gatekeepers to this kingdom? Increasingly, the answer is bloggers, who have come to serve as the Internet’s editors, directing readers to original content of note and, yes, importance. It would seem to go without saying that all blogs, as with newspapers, are not created equal, but many of the critics who are so quick to criticize them, seem to be under the mistaken impression that readers have no means of distinguishing one from the other and assign equal value to the ramblings of the proverbial subterranean Terra Hautean and a post by, oh, I don’t know, Morris Dickstein.Of course, critics will criticize. It is, as with Aesop’s fabled scorpion, in their nature, if not their best interests. By insulting web savvy consumers, after all, they only risk driving away potential readers, hastening that which they fear most: the waning importance of their own contributions to a conversation that is rapidly leaving them behind.