Publishers Grumbling

Book Publishers seem to have given up on negotiating with Google and are relying on the various court cases to stop the “Do not be evil” Bad Guys. There was an extended example of book-world whingeing in Charkinblog yesterday (reproducing in full (?) a piece by Nick Clee from the Times Literary Supplement — not available online). Here are some representative grumbles:

A victory for Google [in the various court actions] – or an extension of legal wranglings to a point beyond which its opponents run out of funds – would raise the threat, the book industry believes, of a severe compromise of authors’ and publishers’ rights.

Let me see if I understand this right. Is Nick Clee complaining that Google may have an unfair advantage in the litigation because they have deep pockets? Were these not cases brought by the publishers and the Authors Guild? Google can hardly be blamed if the publishers run out of patience, or money, in the court cases they have initiated. After a lengthy whinge about Amazon and the erosion of territorial rights (for one brief moment I thought that we were going to have protests about Virgin Atlantic’s cheap flights facilitating the import of low-priced American editions), there is a very odd final complaint, again about Google.

Piracy will certainly be widespread on the internet. Protecting texts against it is a huge problem, not only because of the skills of the hackers, but also because digital rights management (DRM) systems are unpopular with consumers. However, it remains likely that most people will continue to buy texts from official sources. Let us hope simply that the dominant official source for books is not Google. Or else we shall all have to find another way of earning a living.

This is a completely cock-eyed conclusion, because the the Google method for delivering books on the internet (which does embody the most user-friendly form of DRM) is much more secure, much harder for any commercial or systematic piracy to cope with, than any of the other distribution systems which publishers are using. If piracy is the big problem then the publishing industry should rush to embrace Google distribution. Google Book Search is effectively unusable unless you are connected to the web and to Google: the ‘copies’ which Google makes are good for a mere snippet. They are en masse useless, unless you have the Google search engine (or something similar which is not at all easy to build).

The potential monopoly power of Google should be much more of a concern to publishers than the way in which it is digitising books. There is no point in publishers grumbling about Google unless they can articulate a better way of doing it and have confidence in their ability to publish digitally.

Disclosure: Richard Charkin is an old friend. He has also been generous about Exact Editions. We think that he and Nick Clee (I vouch for his recipe for lemon whip here) need to represent the way book publishing should be digital.