Scan-Happy Google Creates Online “Universal Library,” Publishers Get Sidelined, and Books Turn into Loss Leaders for Authors
“Scan this Book!” was the title of Kevin Kelly’s feature article and “manifesto” in the The New York Times Magazine on May 14th. The article was about Google’s hell-bent-for-leather scan-athon of the books from five major research libraries and what this massive effort portends for the world (a digital universal library), for publishers (business model implosion) and for authors (books as loss leaders).
- For the world at large, the digital Universal Library will rescue long-neglected, long-lost, and long-forgotten books: that’s good. I’m all for the UL or DUL. The scope dazzles me. Even though I am one of the “well-booked” per Bill McCoy, GM of Adobe’s e-publishing business, I want the info of the world a click away and I want to be able to drill down until the bit snaps. Beyond my own egocentricity, I empathize with the “billions of people world-wide who are underserved” by having limited or no access to books, but can boot up a computer. Here, let me contribute my old books, those written by me and those on my shelf. Let me read the “marginalia” (is that a word you can say in mixed company?) that Kelly predicts will make my books even more valuable to the world. Let me click away madly and locate 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays that humans have published, as the article says, “since the days of Sumerian clay tablets.”
- As a result of the impending business-model implosion, the inflexible, traditional publishing industry will be sidelined: that’s their personal problem. Free online books on Web sites, in publishing blogs and in The Universal Library will require that the industry trash its stone-age business model and stop throwing good money after bad to shore up the crumbling status quo. All the free books online right now — not to mention the prospect of 32 million free books online — should have Peter W. Olson, Jane Friedman, Jack Romanos and David Young, Presidents and CEOs of Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette, respectively, marshalling the troops, not circling the wagons. “Publishers, be very, very afraid,” the editor of The New York Times Magazine warns on the front cover.
- Authors will now have the opportunity to capitalize on having written a book, rather than being forced to rely exclusively on paltry royalties: that will be reward enough, and those rewards can be enormous. “Digital technology has now disrupted all business models based on mass-produced copies, including individual livelihoods of [authors].” The publish or perish crowd in science, medicine and academe write books for credibility building and ivory tower scaling. Business people who write books about their industry want a published “leave behind” to get a leg-up on the competition. Sure, they’d like to make money off the sale of individual copies of their book, but that is a secondary goal. As free online publishing spreads and The Universal Library grows, the author who writes a book with the primary goal of selling tens of thousands of copies is going to find a smaller and smaller paying audience. But writing books has its rewards, even if not one copy of the book is sold. For some authors like Val Landi, selling the movie rights to his book A Woman from Cairo may be the biggest and best payoff. Cathy West, a Bermudian author who writes for the Christian market and has bimonthly chapters of Just a Little Walk on her Web site, may or may not make money directly from sales of her book, but she may be rewarded in some other way, tangibly or intangibly, in some manner or another, as she casts her bread upon the water. Steve Clackson, although he was absolutely pilloried by a few writers critiquing his novel, Sand Storm, two weeks ago after he posted a few chapters of his book online, may not ever find a traditional publisher, but writing a book and self-publishing online may get his book picked up by the Universal Library, eventually, and who knows, maybe his fortune lies in some anti-terrorism-related venture or screen writing assignment in Hollywood. The Wicked Witch of Publishing is happy to have written three nonfiction books ages ago and to have been “well-published” by HarperCollins, St. Martin’s Press, Pocketbooks, Berkley Books and a variety of foreign publishers, because it helps her land big contracts for big bucks in the corporate world, and it makes her, shallow creature that she is, so bewitching at cocktail parties.
Perhaps it is time to demand a reversal of rights right now for midlist, backlist and deadlist books that publishing companies have dismissed, neglected, forgotten and allowed to go out of print. These old books and still new books languishing in the bowels of some distribution center, could be freely and generously given to the Universal Library for scanning (copyright waived!) and be one-click-available to all potential readers, literally forever.
Perhaps ignoring the traditional publishing companies as they skip merrily along their own well-trod path to who knows where is the best approach.
Perhaps all those writers who faced the patient blank page everyday and nevertheless created a living, breathing book, but couldn’t find a traditional publisher, should self-publish right now online, and reap some of those rewards that are just out there ready to be discovered.
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