Seven Million Books Later, the Dust Begins To Settle
Google is creating one of the world's biggest libraries, but it's all virtual.
By Michael Stillman
The recent legal settlement between Google and book authors and publishers revealed a statistic that Google had previously kept close to its vest - just how many books have they scanned? According to a posting on the Google Blog, that number now exceeds seven million. That is a higher number than most who follow these things had estimated. Google further noted, "...and we're just getting started. We believe that ultimately we'll provide access to many times that number." While by far the largest, Google is not the only entity scanning and turning books into online searchable and accessible texts. There's the Open Content Alliance, the now discontinued Microsoft digitization project which scanned some 800,000 books, the recently announced PALINET program, and others. Whatever one thinks of the concept of online books, we are seeing some seismic shifts in the book trade beginning to stir.
For those who missed the news, Google reached a settlement in late October with authors and book publishers over its project of scanning millions of books, including many still subject to copyright protection, and making them available for viewing online. Basically, the agreement provides that for copyrighted books, Google will only make a small portion visible online. Institutions may purchase a license to view the entirety of all books, and individuals may purchase one-at-a-time access to view any particular book, or print out a copy if they prefer. The copyright holders will receive 63% of that income, Google 37%.
An exception to the charges is provided for public and university libraries. They can offer free access to Google Book Search, including copyrighted items, through a terminal inside the library. There will still be a fee for printing a copy of the book, even inside of a library.
The real story here is not the terms of the settlement, but the fact that one has been reached. It was a foregone conclusion that the great majority of out-of-copyright books, mainly those published before 1923, would eventually make their way online. However, that is only a small portion of the books ever published. Most books are post-1923 and out of print, and these will now increasingly be available online through Google. In-print books may take longer, but we expect these too will make their way online, for a fee, just as most new songs are now available online for a charge as downloadable mp3 files. This settlement removes the last barrier to the online migration of books. What, then, happens to what we long thought of as "books," those things with covers and text printed on a physical substance - paper? What is their future, a question most pertinent to those in the book trade?
While no one knows the precise answer to this question, we can look at other products that earlier experienced such watershed events. Some people foresaw the end to movies and radio once television came along. That never happened, though radio in particular had to reinvent itself. It became a forum for music, news and talk. The half-hour shows, which dominated radio's first three decades, were no longer viable in the radio format.
Seven Million Books Later, the Dust Begins To Settle
However, these examples never involved physical objects. Perhaps the better comparison is records, and their later incarnations, tapes and compact disks. Sales of CDs, the currently most popular hard format, have been declining for the past few years. The easy accessibility of music through the internet was the first step, and now the easy portability through mp3 players makes this format superior to others in terms of convenience. Portable readers, such as Amazon's Kindle, will likely play the role of mp3 players, while Google takes the place of internet sources for music, such as iTunes and Napster.
The situation for books is not quite comparable, since there has always been a greater love for the physical format - books - than there has been for records, tapes, or CDs. Still, those who see books as essential for learning, and a part of our common culture, may mistake physical objects for text. Books are not essential for learning, only information is. Those of us of earlier generations may equate the two, but young people do not. Perhaps the better comparison is newspapers, whose circulation continues to decline, though people, even younger ones, continue to keep up with events online. They still read and gather information, only from a screen, not a sheet of paper.
Presumably, as downloadable books at least partially replace printed ones, the number of printed copies will decrease. How about older books, printed before the digital revolution? Here is where reality sets in. Those that are rare and collectible will retain their value as collectible objects. Those whose primary value is the information within will be much less necessary. This is most of what you find on the listing sites - millions of books, available in many copies, selling for a buck or two. Now there is less need for these. Even books selling for more, but of interest primarily for their content, not collectibility, will be of much diminished value. James Pepper, of James Pepper Rare Books, in a letter we received, notes that items such as bibliographies, valued for their content, and made monetarily valuable by their rarity, are likely to plummet in value when their text is rare no more. He foresees millions of books, ones which make up the inventory of many a used book seller, becoming virtually worthless. It is a point hard to argue.
About a year ago, I wrote about a Kansas City bookseller who was conducting burnings of books he was unable to sell, or even give away. Many observers, myself included, were horrified by the idea. We aren't bothered by trashing old records, videotapes, DVDs and the like, but burning a book was sacrilegious. It reminded us of Nazi and other book burnings, ignorant if not evil people destroying knowledge they believed threatened their comfort zone. Despite these grim associations, that was confusing content with the vehicle. The hard copy book is just a vehicle, like a tape or CD. It is the content which is valuable, not the vehicle. With the content now preserved, and readily available elsewhere, there is no need to preserve the vehicle, let alone worship it. Many booksellers are looking at shelves full of the equivalents of scratchy old records, outdated tapes and videocassettes. There will be tough decisions to be made in the years ahead.