Seven Million Books Later, the Dust Begins To Settle
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.