The NY Times runs a longish article about Google Book Search, its outlook and some fears surrounding its further development. Book Search was freed from legal entanglements when Google settled a class action suit against it. That opened the door for a range of new services and the expanded scanning of out-of-print and copyrighted material.
According to the NY Times’ article:
Revenue will be generated through advertising sales on pages where previews of scanned books appear, through subscriptions by libraries and others to a database of all the scanned books in Google’s collection, and through sales to consumers of digital access to copyrighted books. Google will take 37 percent of this revenue, leaving 63 percent for publishers and authors.
Fears are expressed in the piece that Google will raise fees to libraries over time. But that issue is addressed directly by David Drummond, Google’s top lawyer, who acknowledges the concern and suggests it won’t happen.
Others quoted in the article express different fears that users will read books in fragments or zero-in on particular passages and not read the books in their entirety:
Some scholars worry that Google users are more likely to search for narrow information than to read at length. “I have to say that I think pedagogically and in terms of the advancement of scholarship, I have a concern that people will be encouraged to use books in this very fragmentary way,” said Alice Prochaska, university librarian at Yale.
There are several responses to all this:
- Book search will potentially expose people to more books and help expand interest in reading books they otherwise wouldn’t know about (see the Long Tail)
- Rather than harm sales it may help increase book sales accordingly, as people discover and sample books and determine they want to read them — reading a real book is still better than reading online
- Book Search is part of a larger trend toward electronic delivery of books (see Kindle sales)
In some sense the music, publishing and movie industries are all going through more or less the same transformation toward online/digital delivery of content. Music has already done it and movies are now making the transition.
The future is unpredictable. Certainly several years ago, nobody could have predicted how the Harry Potter novels would drive book sales to kids, whom experts thought were lost to reading.
Whether Google uses its new power over book distribution for good or ill remains to be seen; the company professes largely idealistic motives. But electronic discovery and distribution of books is ultimately an important development that should be embraced rather than resisted.