The Future of the Book

Maps Added to Google Books

The result isn't that flashy, but Google's addition of Maps to its Google Book Search points to the promise of digitizing books. As we have seen with the layers of data that Amazon has added to its database - things like Statistically Improbable Phrases and Capitalized Phrases - digitization of books makes it easy for people to draw connections between books. But digitization also allows for layers of explanatory and reference data to be made easily accessible.Of course, there have long been annotated editions of many books, but in those cases we are limited by the editors' decisions on what material deserves greater explanation and what material stands on its own. With the Internet placing a universe of information at our fingertips, it is now easy for readers and scholars (especially those with access to library databases) to supplement their reading with background information and to find related texts. But sites like Google Books promise to make this process even easier and more fruitful by allowing the books themselves, in their digitized form, to be analyzed and enhanced.In its own modest way, adding Maps to Google Books is an example of this. Have a look at the Google Books page for Around the World in 80 Days (scroll down to see the map). Having the map there adds something to the experience of this geography-centric novel, and it's not much of leap to wonder if a similar system might be able to pull in related images (say, hot air balloons of that era) or contemporary newspaper reviews of the book. The possibilities are almost endless, and, though one must always make the point that such technology is meant to enhance and not replace our beloved paper books, further exploration down this road would be a great thing for literature and learning.On the subject of maps, specifically, as a map lover, I'm excited to see Google trying this out because, like Jerome Weeks, I believe that nearly every book would benefit from the addition of a map or two.
The Future of the Book

HarperCollins Inks Deal with Digital Book Firm

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.
The Future of the Book

Google Books Finds Forgotten Plagiarists

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."
The Future of the Book

Google Books Copyright Case Drags On

This week, there were a pair of updates on the copyright cases against Google that are being brought by publishers and authors.Initially, the two groups had been pursuing two separate complaints against Google, but this week Judge John Sprizzo consolidated the two cases into one. According to MarketWatch: "Sprizzo's streamlining was inevitable because the authors and publishers accuse Google of virtually the same thing, and plan to use the same kind of evidence." It sounds like that news is probably good for the authors and publishers if not terribly consequential.The other bit of new news, that the case won't be decided until early 2008, is undoubtedly bad for the anti-Google Books camp, both because it means the authors and publishers will have to spend more money going up against deep-pocketed Google, and because Google Books will continue operating unfettered for over a year until the case is handed down, as eWeek explains.Now that we know that Google Books turns searchers into buyers, not stealers, perhaps it's a good time for the authors and publishers to broker a compromise with Google.
The Future of the Book

The Death of Newspaper Book Sections

Publishers Weekly has a very interesting article about newspaper book sections which points out that, with the exception of the New York Times, book review sections do not bring in enough ad revenue to cover their costs.Those of us who follow the newspaper industry are used to hearing all ills blamed on declining readership, but those quoted in the PW article essentially take the publishing houses to task for failing to support book sections outside of "their hometown paper, the New York Times." Of course, one could easily point out that if readership were to rebound, ad revenue would as well, but the article does make a compelling point.Publishers (who in many ways are just as endangered as newspapers) bemoan our dying literary culture, but then fail to support it in one of the last places where it is clinging to a foothold. I've never been a publishing industry insider, so I don't know if things are just bad all over (perhaps someone can enlighten us), but I wonder if publishers are to blame here, or if they have simply found that the dollars spent in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and LA Times, don't help sell many books.In the Comments: Jerome Weeks, the Dallas Morning News book columnist mentioned in the PW story, gives us some additional thoughts on this issue.
The Future of the Book

Google’s Odd Bestseller List

In order to promote its Google Book Search at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the search engine released a list of the most viewed books on the service from September 17th through 23rd, and it doesn't much resemble the bestseller lists that commonly appear in newspapers. The titles range from Diversity and Evolutionary Biology of Tropical Flowers to a translation of the Holy Qur'an to Build Your Own All-Terrain Robot.The quirky titles on the list highlight the different ways we interact with books. The New York Times and Amazon create lists based on books we buy, LibraryThing, as I mentioned yesterday, creates lists based on what we own, while Google's list is based on books we look at. I think these different ways in which we interact with books are sometimes forgotten by publishers who assume that books exist only to be part of a commercial transaction. In reality, our relationship with books is much more varied and complex than that.
The Future of the Book

Sony Reader on its Way

The launch of the Sony Reader is drawing nearer, and it has garnered another mostly positive review, this time from the Washington Post. The Reader gets high marks for its look and feel, as well as its ability to increase the font size for readers with vision trouble. With "twice the pixel density of most conventional LCDs, and on a par with the resolution of newsprint," eye strain isn't a problemThe device's battery lasts for "7500 page turns," and its memory can store 80 average length books. Sony has set up a store similar to Apple's iTunes where readers can buy the books, and 10,000 titles are expected to be available at launch. Judging by the titles available for sale, the ebooks appear to fetch the same price as their paper counterparts. The device generally gets high marks, but not enough to make it worth the price tag for everyone, according to the reviewer: "Is the Reader worth $350? Only if you want to trim your luggage, stop collecting dead trees, or use the large-font feature for easier reading."Given how impressed many have been with the technology, I suspect those reasons will be enough to make the Sony Reader reasonable successful, especially if it can keep expanding its library of titles. More broadly speaking, books - the old-fashioned paper kind - are far from an endangered species, but the Reader may appeal to people for whom lugging around a bunch of books has gotten to be a pain. Were Sony to add the ability to download newspaper and magazine articles (perhaps this is in the works, I don't know), it would up the usefulness of this device considerably.According to the Web site, it looks like the Reader has begun shipping already, and is proving popular: "Due to overwhelming demand, new Sony Portable Reader orders may ship as late as mid-November," reads a notice on the site.Bonus Links: I've written about the Sony Reader and ebooks a couple of times before: The digital future of the book and The Possibility of an eBook Summer.
The Future of the Book

Amazon Ramps Up More “Community” Features

Amazon has further tangled and interconnected its product pages by adding comments to its customer reviews. Amazon also now allows you to search across Customer Reviews and "Listmania" lists.The comments on reviews up the interactivity quotient on Amazon pages by several notches, turning the comments into the equivalent of a topical blog with dozens of authors all writing about a particular book. It also alleviates the previously frustrating inability to correct or add to information posted in earlier reviews. I had to dig around to find some examples of the new comments in action. Just as political books are among the most frequently reviewed, they are also now getting the most comments (if troll-like.) For example, have a look at the dedicated page for a review of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival, currently in the news because Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez brandished it during his fiery Anti-Bush speech at the UN on Wednesday. Amazon has unleashed a free-for-all, but I applaud them for it. Why not let people communicate about individual books? Perhaps something good will come of it.The Customer Reviews search, meanwhile, probably has some value if you are either trying to drill deeper into what a particular book is all about - for example, a search for the word "Oprah" in the reviews of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections - or trying to dig up information across Amazon's whole catalog that may not be evident using the standard search - like this search for "desert island book."The Listmania search allows for similar fun, if less serendipity.
The Future of the Book

Google Highlights Banned Books

Google has put together a special page on its "Books" site devoted to frequently banned books in recognition of "Banned Books Week," the American Library Association initiative to protect intellectual freedom and raise awareness about attempts to ban books. This year, the event takes place from September 23 to 30.The Google tie in to this, I think, illuminates the importance of the company's efforts to digitize books and make them accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In this way, even if a frequently challenged book like Lolita or Beloved is made inaccessible to a curious reader, it will always be available online. (via)
The Future of the Book

New Data on Google Books

Various book blogs have been pointing to the vnunet.com story, which says that Google Book Search is causing people to buy books. The story points to data from Hitwise, a research firm, which shows that 15.93% of Google Book Search UK users click through to book store sites from Google's site, with Amazon UK being the most popular destination. The article, and a Hitwise blog post, imply that this data means that Google Books is, despite the fears of publishers to the contrary, helping to sell books. Of course we can't really know if that's true. What seems more likely is that people researching particular books will do so at Google Books and they will click through to the book store sites as they try to seek out more information - user reviews, for example - on the books that interest them. Occasionally, of course they may buy some books this way.But the point, as I see it, isn't that people are using Google Book Search to buy books, it's that they're using it like a library - after all, only 15.93% of users click through to book stores, and some small fraction of those go on to buy books. The additional data collected by Hitwise for the study seems to bear this out. Hitwise is capable of dividing users into dozens of thinly sliced demographic groups. Of all those groups, here are the three biggest users of Google Books UK, according to Hitwise:Low Income Elderly: Elderly people living in low rise council housing, often on low incomes.University Challenge: Undergraduate students living in halls of residence or close to universities.Sepia Memories. Very elderly people of independent means who have moved to modest apartments suitable for their needs.Bearing in mind that the Hitwise data should be taken with a grain of salt, these groups are probably among the most heavy users of brick and mortar libraries. And while college students certainly fit the profile of pirated media swappers, the other two demographic groups do not. To me, this data confirms that in the minds of the casual user, Google Book Search is a research tool, an online variety of the library - not meant to replace libraries, mind you, but meant to fill in the gaps libraries' current online offering, namely full text search - a fact that explains Google's cozy relationship with a number of library systems, as opposed to its acrimonious relationship with a number of publishers.