On Thinking Beyond the Google Settlement

We enjoyed the London Book Fair earlier this week. There was considerable interest in the project that Bloomsbury have announced to create ‘shelves’ of content for public libraries, using the Exact Editions platform. There was also much interest in the fact that Exact Editions is able to directly support the iPhone user experience.

The fair was slightly quieter than last year and some publishers are feeling the squeeze of recession in reduced consumer purchases, but there was also a great deal of optimism and excitement about the books industry and in particular about the potential for new digital markets. I am sure that book publishers are in much better shape than newspaper or magazine publishers to adapt to the new challenge of digital publishing. If there were a Trade Show like the LBF for newspapers or magazines this year in London it would be so gloomy, or probably postponed.

There was certainly some discussion of Google Books Search, of the looming, probable, approval of the Settlement in the dispute with the Authors’ Guild and the Association of American Publishers. There were some meetings where Google was discussed. A literary agent, Piers Blofeld, penned an angry diatribe against Google Book Search (see p 12 of the Bookseller Daily for 21 April): I am sure that I was not the only reader of this piece to be thinking “Canute”. But overall there seemed to be a quiet air of business as usual, with the book trade; publishers, authors and agents, not quite understanding what is about to hit it. What is about to hit it, or them?

The London Book Fair is much smaller than the Frankfurt Book Fair, but its focus is overwhelmingly on British or English language books. The Main Hall at Earls Court accommodates several hundred stands from leading British, European and American publishers. Those publishers and the booksellers, agents, librarians and authors spend three days discussing, negotiating, dealing, buying, selling, promoting, praising, discounting, rubbishing, remaindering and very occasionally reading tiny little bits of the 300,000 odd books published or about to be published in the English language. The show is overwhelmingly concerned with new books and major sellers from the back list. The book business pretty much is the business that is on display at the London Book Fair and it has a focus on this year and next year’s books (2 years worth of books from the UK and US market takes us to 300,000 or so new books).

If we think of this rather large and hangar-like hall being occupied by the books that are currently the focus of the commercial market for books, we can also imagine a skyscraper of 30 or perhaps 40 stories being built above the Earls Court Stadium. The stacked stories of this skyscraper will each contain another 300,000 mostly older books, but this time all of them ordered, regimented and deployed in total silence and precise obedience with no noisy haggling or discordant trading. Such a skyscraper would be a serious obstacle on the flight path for planes approaching Heathrow, but its towering shadow does give us an idea of the relative scale of the Google Books Search project as set against the current (this year, last year) output of publishers in the English language. The 10,000,000+ books that Google will have in its arsenal when the Google Book Search library goes live in a year of two will completely dwarf the current activity. The 40 odd stories of the Google Books skyscaper will not need the traditional tools and mechanisms of the book trade. The transactions, accessibility, searchability, and reading of these millions of books will all be a matter of database and web-driven activity. Commercial arrangements will be settled by the Books Rights Registry or the publishers’ agreements with Google and the commercial transactions and access rules will be executed by Google or its contracted distributors. There will be very little need for human intervention, except at the periphery. When authors, agents and publishers decide to put things into the system, or, at the consumer edge, when readers, searchers, librarians or consumers decide that they wish to have some form of access to the repository. Of course Google will also not need a skyscraper at all. The few hundred terabytes, possibly by then one or two petabytes, that may be needed for the Google nearly-complete libary in 2012 will comfortably fit in the confines of the whirling, bladed and racked systems, housed in a single standard freight container. We should add a few more trailers to cope with the bandwidth of a billion users, but it is all fitting nicely in the underground loading bay that they have at Earls Court. The efficiency and reliability of the Google system does not require large physical infrastructure. Push on a couple of years, and by 2014 I think one can be sure that Google will have most of the world’s published literature in the Google database. How will new books then be working in relation to the 50, 60, 70, 80 stories high skyscraper of previously published but now completely databased and universally accessible digital books?

So how indeed is the traditional world of books going to cope with the fact that most of the world’s published literature will be available, purchasable, readable and eminently usable as a database system within a few years? The new books which are then being published will still need the care, design, attention and promotion of publishers and editors, but will readers be expecting to buy new books in volume form when everything else is usable and being used as part of a database system. Will Google be totally dominating the market for new books, as it apparently will be monopolising the market for ‘orphan’ books?

We may wonder. One suspects that there is far too much that goes on in the world of writing, authorship and publishing, for the talent, the style and the colour to disappear into the smooth and virtual maw of a Googlised library. Google, in my view, will not end up owning the books business, and its monopolistic trajectory will stall or run into natural limits. But in walking the aisles beneath this 40 story skyscraper, rising inexorably above Earls Court, full of scanned and indexed titles that are in many cases neglected and orphaned, one does wonder whether there can possibly be a future for proprietary file formats, Kindle or Sony readers and the non-Google searchable distribution networks that publishers are building and commissioning for themselves? What does Mr Bezos think he is achieving by locking users into a DRM which is Google inaccessible? Elsevier, Springer and Wiley are in enough trouble with their own non-standard, pre-Google Book Search, content management and access systems for it to be doubtful that the world needs another 175 variations on the same theme. There is quite a lot going on in the world of digital books that is completely irrelevant to the GBS seismic shift. The Guardian journalist writing about eBooks at the Fair managed to avoid mentioning Google or GBS at all. If the digital book is not in a format that can be searched by Google (or similar search engines) you might as well forget it. Google will not be selling access to everything, it will not be allowed to build such a monopoly, but it will be searching everything that is published. That is the big win for Google from the Settlement.

There will be one hell of a row when it is fully appreciated that this wonderful Google system is only to be properly and fully deployed in the USA. But leaving that on one side, the London Book Fair of 2012 will take place very much in the shadow of the decision Judge Denny Chin in the Southern District of New York this summer. We all need to be thinking post-Google Settlement.

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