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. 

Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing: Leave your email address if I don’t already have it! I try to send a quick email out when I put up a new posting. Also, the Wicked Witch of Publishing is up to no good! Again! If you are a first-time author with a manuscript languishing in the slush pile, definitely leave your email address so the Wicked Witch can get in touch with you to help you with a new service she is offering in a week or two. (Click on “Email” under “Pages” on the sidebar).

20 Responses to “Scan-Happy Google Creates Online “Universal Library,” Publishers Get Sidelined, and Books Turn into Loss Leaders for Authors”

  1. Frazer Dobson Says:

    Google was quite a presence at BEA this time (report will follow)–they had a large booth with a big “Google” sign hanging back center of the cavernous exhibition hall, and their odd little pushcarts were ubiquitous.

    I have a lot of questions about this, especially as regards copyright–I may not have all the information here, but how can Google do this? I don’t think many authors would willingly give them the rights to scan (and therefore infinitely reproduce) their work. How would they make money on that? (As I said, I’m shaky on the deal’s details, so perhaps you can enlighten me, Lynne.) And who the hell wants to read a book on a computer screen anyway? The physical presence of the book is its own pleasure, and the thought of squinting at the computer screen through a whole long novel makes me break out in hives.

    I think the real potential threat here comes from Sony’s pending eReader, which a bookseller colleague of mine from Pasadena (we’re on the ABA’s Bookseller Advisory Council together) says she’s worried about. She said, “When I saw it, I wanted one, and that scares me.” Don’t know if she’s being hyperbolic, but she and the ABA staff have been talking to Sony about it. There have been technological problems that have delayed its launch (my friend doesn’t think it will be ready for this year’s holiday season), but the prospect of being able to download freely from Google to that might create real problems if the device is as comfortable and user friendly as she says it is.

    We’ve had a fine BEA, which has included a trip to the National Zoo, a party at which I met several of my favorite authors, another party at which I was briefly in the same room with G. Gordon Liddy, my re-discovery of Mongolian barbecue, a minor rental car accident, and bags and bags of galleys, some of which we’re even interested in.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi, Frazer! I’m so sorry I couldn’t get a room within a hundred miles of BEA. If it comes to NYC next year, I’ll walk over to it from my apartment wearing my bathrobe, cup of coffee in hand. To answer your question about the legality of Google slapping all these books online and making them available, yes, there are copyright laws that will logjam hundreds of thousands of books at the gate of The Universal Library for decades and digital rights held by publishing companies that will prevent authors from putting traditionally published books online themselves. (I’d link to the NYT article, but you have to be a subscriber to access the article.) That’s why authors need to wrestle back either all the rights (reversal of rights) or go and get the digital rights back from the publishing company. Renegotiate. If an editor thinks some revenue might be generated where no revenue currently exists, it makes sense to hand back those rights to the author. Look, it’s turning into a veritable battleground out there and the situation is evolving! Publishing companies say: “They’re mine, all mine” when it comes to rights. Authors say: “But you haven’t done anything with these rights.” Google presses on. And you are right about how awful it is to try and read a book on screen. I like to click on over to read the online books of folks who are kind enough to drop by my blog, but I find it a form of torture to sit there for hours on end, reading, reading, reading and squirming, squirming, squirming. 

  2. skint writer Says:

    Welcome back Lynne, as usual a cornucopia of analysis and wisdom. These kind of debates are raging across the blogoshpere and this post will add much to the definition of the new paradigm of e-publishing.

    There is a frontier feeling to all this; there is gold in them there hills – keep panning – keep the faith.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Thanks, Skint Writer. I’ve moved to higher ground from the end of Long Island and am now in the “lake country” of NW New Jersey, 968′ 8″ above sea level, unpacking, and chasing a big black bear around with my broomstick. (Not kidding!)

  3. Peter L. Winkler Says:

    Dear Lynne:

    There’s a lot in your post to react to, but I’ll restrict myself to a few opinions (I won’t call them points, they’re not fully developed arguments).

    1. It doesn’t matter how many books are online, even for free, if no one wants to read them. Though millions own computers and handheld devices capable of displaying text, most of them have an antipathy toward ebooks. Unless that changes, increasing the supply of digitised text is an exercise in futility.

    2. Writers can self-publish all they want by throwing their works onto the internet, but how will they get anyone to read them? See #1 above. Technorati says there are over 36 million blogs. There must be even more web sites. An author has to not only overcome reader’s dislike of ebooks but find a way to rise above the noise floor of the internet.

    3. Taking the average book which sells 1,000 copies and goes out of print and digitizing it and making it available online probably won’t make the author a dime. Why do most books sell only about 1,000 copies when published? How will online availability alone change the conditions which consign most books to the graveyard? See #1 and #2.

    4. You can’t give away what you can’t sell. As Dr. Thomas Szasz said, “People pay for what they value and value what they pay for.” Suddenly making thousands or millions of out of print books available online for free isn’t necessarily going to create a huge rush of people going online and crashing servers in their race to download them. Readers are happy to pay for books that they are interested in. The price isn’t the problem. Most books that are published die from underexposure or lack of readers’ interest even when they are made aware of them. Putting them online for free won’t change that.

    Most of the books I happen to seek out are fairly old and out of print. I’ve never had a problem finding them either for free, through interlibrary loans, or by buying a cheap, used copy from ebay or

    However, I had to know about the book and desire to read it before I pursued a copy.

    5. Why aren’t your books available online, even for a fee?

    Peter Winkler

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing: Peter, everything you say is true. The point is that once you have finished a book, whether it is published by a traditional publisher or whether you publish it online yourself, you are a “published author.” You can use the fact that you have written and published a book as a wonderful credit and a huge asset. Parlay that ”asset” into other opportunities. YOU have to look for those opportunities. It is true that some authors will not be able to parlay anything. They don’t have the personality for it or interest in doing it. So be it. Yes, it is awful when a book cannot find an audience because it has not been marketed well or enough. It is true that some authors will not be able to market anything, let alone themselves. They just don’t have the marketing know-how, and don’t want to learn. So be it. Again, no one has to read your book, though you hope that many people will, for you to be a successful author. You have to redefine successful as it relates to your book.  Re question #5: I have a reversal of rights to my books! They are out-of-print and unavailable right now because I’ve got other plans for them. I’m working up to putting parts of them online and making lots of money off them again. They are nonfiction books, and people will willingly pay for the info in them.      

  4. David Thayer Says:

    You had me at the Stone Age. We’re now in the post compression era in publishing, that is there are no more efficiencies available through merger and acquisition. Banks and insurance companies have gone through the same cycle and are using technology to pinpoint customers’ tastes for new products and services. I can’t think of stodgier businesses than banks…oh wait, yes, I can.
    I also wondered if Mr. Dobson’s rediscovery of Mongolian barbecue was related to being in the same room with Gordon Liddy.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi, David! Welcome back. Yep, I’m watching carefully to see how everything unfolds. Actually, it is very exciting.

  5. Dave Newton Says:

    The digital-network revolution is young. It’s at its most mature in the software business; when’s the last time you bought boxed software in a store? How soon will you no longer bother to download it? Have you tried, the online word processor, or any of Google’s or Yahoo’s online tools? Microsoft obsolete? If they don’t move faster, yes.

    Radio, television and the movies now face distribution chaos. Book publishing should be the exception?

    Change isn’t a should-it-happen issue. Science and technology know only one imperative: if it can be done, it will be. So, O.K., tear your hair. Just keep writing, and don’t sign away your rights.

  6. Mark D. Scanlon Says:

    Re comment from David Thayer re Frazer Dobson’s comment about G. Gordon Liddy: “I also wondered if Mr. Dobson’s rediscovery of Mongolian Barbecue was related to being in the same room with Gordon Liddy.”

    Funny, I had exactly the same reaction to the note about G. Gordon Liddy as Thayer did. Do you get the reference to Liddy’s renown in the Nixon years for having held his palm over a candle flame to prove how tough he was? Could Liddy perhaps have been invited so he could monitor the temperature of the barbecue coals?


    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hum…I missed the reference. This could be because I am so much younger than you are. (Mark is my OLDER brother!)

  7. Valerie Ryan Says:

    Hi Lynne:
    It’s me again, here on the upper left edge, all wound up by your latest posting. In this click-y society, where fits the bookseller? I find the juxtaposition of your last two postings serendipitous, but they must be giving you cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, you praise the UL and on the other, you praise the “hand-seller.” I believe that there is room for both realities, but, please, please, SAY SO! I have spent 26 happy years doing just what you describe: talking books with people, whether or not they turn out to be customers; special ordering, sending people to their next book…it is what makes the business vital and endlessly engaging.
    End of Monday morning rant!

    Valerie Ryan
    Cannon Beach Book Company

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Valerie, I just don’t know how all of this will sort, particularly as it relates to independent bookstores and the chains, although Barnes & Noble has metamorphosed from something other than a book store into a mini-mart carrying books and ”book related” items, along with coffee and cake. 

  8. Tara O'Donnell Says:

    I think there’s alot of good intentions with this whole idea, but it really needs to be fully thought out here-Nicholson Baker wrote a good book on this subject called Double Fold which pointed out the downside of transfering books to computer only formats.

    Another aspect of this is that many people will not want to access all these titles online due to

    a)visual eyestrain from computer screens, and

    b) some folks may not want or have computers (shocking,I know).

    This article has at least stirred up some conversation that may lead to something getting done.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): I know, Tara, you are absolutely right about the eyestrain, and let’s not forget about the back strain! I’d definitely download books if the download were rapid and into something with as cozy a feel to it as a book I could fall asleep reading.

  9. Lorra Laven Says:

    Like any innovation, I believe the UL will evolve over time, and to assume that only books that nobody wants to read will be scanned into the UL is a bit premature and short-sighted.

    I agree with Lynne that academic writers, as well as business writers, might benefit greatly from the UL system.

    Also, I’m sure there are writers who just want to share their thoughts with the world. How cool would it be if a couple of hundred of readers a year for the next fifty years read their writing? In fact, that’s exactly what a lot of bloggers do every day on the net: share the minutae of their lives with strangers. So what if they expand that concept into a short story or even a full-length novel? There are bound to be people out there somewhere who would love to read what they write; reality shows are proof of that.

    After watching the explosion of digitally downloaded music and movies, I believe the UL concept may lead to a grass-roots publishing industry that bypasses the big publishers entirely. If that happens, the big publishers are going to have to change or die because the reading public will not be restricted to reading only books chosen by them that are backed by huge marketing budgets.

    Writers will market their books directly to savvy readers who search online – probably through online distributors (like now does for electronic music and itunes does for mny other types of music) – rather than going into a book store or discount store to buy a book. When the computer generation shoves the rest of us aside, I’m betting there will be technology that allows readers to cheaply print and bind books at home. Perhaps a reader will make their selection before they go to bed and when they get up the next morning, their book will be waiting for them, bound in an eye-catching cover, just like the ones in a traditional bookstore.

    Scoff if you will, but with the speed at which computer technology is changing, I believe anything is possible and if you don’t think outside the box, you are going to be left behind.

    Personally, I still like going into a bookstore to search for books because that’s what I’m used to doing. But then, I’m not really part of the computer generation.

  10. Noel Guinane Says:

    The Internet is a very exciting development for writers. Before, any prospective author was pretty much dependent on an established publisher with distribution muscle to take on and promote their work. Not anymore. Now the opportunity is there for small independent publishers and even individual authors to promote themselves and avoid the meat factory approach of a traditional churn ‘em out publisher.

    When I hear writers complain about having to navigate the traditional publishing route, I say don’t even bother. Do your own publishing and promotion. Maybe you won’t strike it rich or earn critical praise, but you will at least have the satisfaction of remaining in control of your own work. And if you can manage to generate sales, one of those lumbering publishing giants with deep marketing pockets will be much more likely to take an interest. Bringing a sales record to that negotiating table will put you in a much stronger negotiating position.

    I don’t think the traditional publishing industry will be sidelined anytime soon, though I do think the boy-band approach big publishers currently take to publishing books is going to change and we might start to once again see some exceptional talent coming forward, something I think everyone would enjoy seeing (or should I say reading).

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): One of the problems the publically traded publishing companies face is that whatever they do, it must be to the IMMEDIATE benefit of the shareholders. That’s the law. (Feathering one’s own nest, aside!) Maximizing profit for the shareholders comes first. These companies are doing well! That makes the shareholders happy. Changing the business model is fraught with problems, and publishing companies cannot afford a down tick while they sort out the future. I’m going to blog about this soon because I don’t think everybody understands this very serious consideration faced by HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Random House and Hachette. 

  11. Lynne Says:

    I just got back from clicking over to Publishers Weekly to see what Sara Nelson, Editor in Chief, wrote about today. She, too, has written an essay on this subject, though her title is a little less complicated: “Scan this!” It’s always worth a trip to Publishers Weekly to see what Sara Nelson has written.

  12. David Thayer Says:

    Valerie Ryan runs the best damned bookstore on the left coast.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Valerie left a comment. See above! 

  13. Minx Says:

    We used to go to the talkies, then we got televisions that looked like goldfish bowls. Now we demand two metre ‘wall floating’ entertainmant systems.

    We used to have telephones with wires that strangled the cat. Then we had mobiles that looked like bricks. Now we have phones that connect to everything and are the size of credit cards.

    We used to have books. We will always have books, but…….

  14. Cathy West Says:

    I love the passion behind your prose!
    However, as much as I agree with everything you are saying, I do have to add that, as an author who has yet to be published with a traditional house, there is that dream of holding YOUR book in your hands, that has yet to be fulfilled.
    Admittedly, seeing my writing online has been a thrill, but I still aspire to hold my ‘baby’ in my hand and drop a tear onto that first page…
    Perhaps it is the traditionalist in me.
    I have thought about self-publishing many times, yet again, that traditional spirit rises up to argue that going that route may be in fact ‘cheating’.
    Then again, why do I feel that I can only succeed if somebody sitting behind a desk with a fancy title of Acquisitions Editor ‘says’ I can??
    The money isn’t an issue for me. {guffaw!!}
    Really, I don’t stand to make much either way, unless of course Hollywood gets wind of my genius…for me, it’s just the reward of seeing all the blood, sweat and tears become validated through sharing the gift I have been given with others. And if they ‘get it’, all the better!
    I love books and I would hate to see them become obsolete, yet I can also empathise with the struggling author who just wants to get a foot in the door, dang it!!
    It will be interesting to see how all this develops over the next few years. Perhaps, for the generations coming behind us, a UL will be the only way to get them to read! Hey, go pick up the computer and read for an hour…hmmm….don’t think my son will buy that one, but you never know…

    Note from The Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Cathy, I think of you as a published author; your book is available to the public. While it is true that Miriam Webster’s online dictionary defines publish as “to produce or release for distribution; specifcally: print, I believe that dictionary is due for an update to include online versions of books.  

  15. Maxine Says:

    This is all fascinating, and gets lots of people het up for different reasons.Maxine
    Scanning books and putting content online does not necessarily mean anything in terms of people being able to read it for free — I work for a publisher with full online content, but it is access-controlled. (I am not making any predictions, just pointing out what is possible).

    In my opinion, what will happen to books is what has happened/is happening to the scientific journal part of the publishing industry, and what Amazon is very much into just now. That is, reader ranking and “citation tracking”. Google Scholar will show you the kind of thing — scholarly content is user-ranked. What comes up to the top of your search is what most people like reading.

    On the “scan this book” model, best-sellers could become best-sellers because people like reading them…get a book returned in your online search that has a high ranking/citation, and order it (POD).

    So could the whole thing mean more power to the author and the small independent publisher, and less power to the conglomorates and marketeers? I don’t know, of course, but surely it is possible? (Booksellers, as you, Glenn Reynolds and others have said, Lynne, need to speed up their self-reinvention as wi-fi-ed coffee houses in which people like to spend their time running their one-person businesses, writing their books or whatever. Maybe they should even get together with the beleaguered libraries to provide a combined book buying/lending service as part of a multi-environment for people?)

  16. Booksquare » More On Google; We Never Rest Says:

    […] Scan-Happy Google Creates Online “Universal Library,” Publishers Get Sidelined, and Books Turn into Loss Leaders for Authors […]

  17. Eoin Purcell’s Blog » Blog Archive » Will publishers live on? Says:

    […] On my arrival back in Dublin I settled in for a few hours of feed catch-up and found that the same theme has been floated (though with different outcomes) this weekend on the web too. Two new and fascinating posts crossed my path and are well worth investigating. The first to read is by The Publishing Contrarian and it came by way of and as part of more comment on Booksquare. […]

  18. Eoin Purcell’s Blog » Blog Archive » The two digital debate camps Says:

    […] Search is the library/bookshop of the web. The Publishing Contrarian has a nice post (some of which I agree with some of which I disagree with) on this and its consequences. […]

  19. Emile Badir Says:

    A lot of noise for google and Microsoft , what is new ?
    Free domain books scanned ? already done before by academic centers and available online.
    Recent books scanned ? publisher permission ? already online by the publishers them self.
    I made a search on Google books, what i found ? pieces of books ? all what google or yahoo or Microsoft want is that you click on where to buy. they will present a mass as usualy but in fact you will be only able to see a couple of hundred imposed to you to see and to buy.
    the fact is that preservation and researcher they will continue to go to the academic centers where they will find what they want. others will only see straps of books it a pure trade business.
    Some poeple belive that knowledge must not be traded – i.e. available only to who can effort the price – and the works does not belong to the writer or the publisher as much it belong to the humanity, whatever this phylosifie is based on religion belives, and therefor in many contries, governements has published a lot of books (mostly literature, history,politic, phylosophie, technologie)on a low price (less than the cost price), I donn’t think google , yahoo or Microsoft are from this party.
    Can the you stop making noise, you only do what they want you to do.
    thank for your times

  20. Brother René Says:

    The great thing (and the worst thing) about America is that one can make as much NOISE as one wants. And, it’s obviously working here for both Lynne and Emile.

    Google and Internet Explorer are both free services. If you don’t like them, don’t use them. It’s that simple.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Crikey, Brother Rene. I see you sneaked out of the window of the monastery and down to the local internet cafe again! 

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