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.”
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.
In December, I wrote about HarperCollins’ plan to host digitized copies of their books on their own Web site rather than make them available to Google’s book search. Now the AP is reporting that HarperCollins has unleashed its first offering in this format, Go It Alone, a business book by Bruce Judson. The book is available, in its entirety, at Judson’s Web site. As Google does with its book search, HarperCollins has surrounded the book with contextual ads and provided a link to buy the book. The article points out the supposed irony of using Google ads, but I see Yahoo ads in there too and anyway, HarperCollins isn’t trying to screw over Google, they’re trying to maintain control over the process. HarperCollins has mostly gotten good reviews for their efforts primarily because they’re not using any sort of Digital Rights Management (DRM) to “protect” their intellectual property. To some, this approach is nothing new. As is noted in the article, marketing guru Seth Godin and science fiction author Cory Doctorow (to give two examples), have both made their books available in this way. The news here is that a major publisher is doing it.Based on this article, though, HarperCollins doesn’t seem to understand that by allowing easy, free access to the book, they are, in effect, using the book as marketing for itself in much the same way that one can flip through a book at bookstore before buying. Instead they view the ads displayed next to the book’s pages as a “new revenue stream.” That’s why you shouldn’t expect to see any fiction as a part of this program. According to Brian Murray, group president of HarperCollins, “I don’t think advertisers are clamoring to place ads around literary fiction.” Hence, no literary fiction.
What’s the pedigree of a bestseller? That’s the question the New York Times asked last week in an article that, despite the endless waves of political scandal, remained on their most viewed list for the better part of a week. The article reveals the seamy side of publishing: publishers have foresworn the metrics used by marketers to study their audiences’ buying habits, because they, much like Creationists, “don’t believe in them,” leading to an industry where million dollar advances are gambled on the Flying Spaghetti Monster of editors’ intuition. So is it any surprise that an article about the billion-dollar, high-stakes world of publishing, with its talk of big bets and horse racing, comes off sounding like a description of a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting? Won’t someone stop the insanity? (Very nicely summed up here, btw.)Enter Macmillan New Writing, the controversial imprint of the British publishing house Macmillan. New Writing was founded to promote works by unpublished writers, particularly writers who have produced the kind of experimental, unclassifiable or controversial books that are worth publishing, but might not have what it takes to become best sellers, in other words, books that don’t have mass market appeal. The imprint publishes one book a month and currently comprises twenty titles, all of which are prominently featured in Macmillan’s catalog. No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it’s not all upside. Not only are the writers’ contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author’s second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint “literary slave drivers” and “vanity publishers,” and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it. (As if that would be a bad thing. The submissions, at least, are entirely electronic.) The negative press was so strong that the founder of the imprint, Michael Barnard, felt compelled to write Transparent Imprint, a book defending his idea. (Which the imprint, of course, published. See how that works?)Why all the consternation? Sure, novelists lose their right to film rights, translations, and licensed merchandise (Ignatius J. Reilly trebuchets, anyone?), but is that so bad? Without an agent, they wouldn’t be able to sell them anyway, and apparently Macmillan has been doing a good job so far, bagging a movie deal for the thriller The Manuscript and a decent advance on a German edition of the fantasy novel The Secret War. What’s really at stake, it would seem, is the publishing industry’s ego. Despite the fact that their best work is guesswork, they like to believe they know what they’re doing when they get into a bidding war over a total unknown. The novelist Giles Foden, quoted by the Guardian, put it like this, New Writing’s list is like “putting a bet on every horse in the race – but without paying for any of the bets.” And that doesn’t make us feel very special, does it?But, if the New York Times is right, isn’t that what publishers are doing anyway? If advances are the big gambles everyone says they are, then they only serve to make publishers risk averse. Much like Hollywood, which instead of looking for fresh material, increasingly hedges its bets by turning out retreads of once popular comic books and old TV shows, the publishing industry is in a rut. Bestsellers are inherently unpredictable, and yet, if a publishing exec had to choose between a cutting edge novel and another Harry Potter knockoff, you can bet that “Parry Hotter and The Sorcerer’s Merkin” would be the one stacked on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles nationwide. By not giving writers advances, New Writing has found a way around this problem, allowing them to take a chance on a book, while reducing the considerable overhead attached. This system should be a boon for mid-list writers who, it’s often said, are not nurtured by publishing houses in the way they once were. Sure, you’ll hear writers grousing about being unable to make a living from their work, but, with the exception of the biggest literary stars, isn’t that’s how it’s always been? For my part, I’d much rather have my books in print, giving my readership a chance to grow with me. After all, readers will seek out a good writer’s backlist, and every book that sees print should increase royalties from previous efforts. And what a boon for those writers who don’t have the savvy, connections, or good luck to get an agent. Hell, some writers, John Kennedy Toole comes to mind, are literally dying to get published.It’s been over a year since New Writing put out its first book, and the imprint’s list of well-reviewed books seem to be proving the naysayers wrong. The writers’ seem satisfied with the deal (here and here), and if Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort (recently reviewed here at The Millions) is any indication of the quality of the books New Writing has on offer, they’re doing the literary community a real service. It might be time for the rest of the publishing industry to put down their dice and take notice.Bonus Link: The MacMillan New Writing titles currently available in the U.S.
With little fanfare, Amazon has unveiled a new feature that has major implications for the digital distribution of books. For starters, Amazon has revamped its “Search Inside the Book” interface and renamed it the Amazon Online Reader. Looking at To the Lighthouse, the familiar links allowing you to jump to the table of contents, an excerpt, and other sections of the book are visible on the left side of the new interface, but below those is a tab called “Highlights/Bookmarks.” Along the top are buttons that allow you to jump to specific pages, highlight, bookmark, copy, and print. All of these features are inaccessible unless you use a new feature that was introduced jointly with the new online reader called Amazon Upgrade. For an extra five dollars when you buy the hard copy of a book, Amazon Upgrade gives you online access to the book and lets you “mark it up” with highlighting, bookmarks, and notes, a process which is explained here. Perhaps most fascinating is that Amazon allows you to make your notations public so that they can be viewed by other readers. To me this sounds like aggregating all the many jottings that populate the used books sitting on dusty shelves everywhere.The other aspect of this that interests me is the reader itself. The old interface for viewing a book was clunky and the text was hard to read comfortably, but with the new reader the display is much larger and easier to read, and the pages load almost instantaneously compared to the old version. While not ideal, it’s now possible to imagine actually reading a book in this way. Others have taken notice of this as well, and it is causing some to speculate that Amazon is looking to sell access to books online whether or not one buys the hard copy.For more info on the new Amazon Online Reader, check out Lifehacker and ResourceShelf.