Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2010 Issue

Google Editions Set For Launch - And You Can Sell Them Too

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Google Editions is expected to launch this summer, possibly even this month.


By Michael Stillman

It has been reported that Google Editions, the new online book service Google has been planning for the past year, could launch as soon as early summer. Its main competitive target is Amazon and its "Kindle," and others who focus on the physical reading device. Google is only interested in selling content, not devices, a model not unlike the one Microsoft employed to put all of those companies that used to marry proprietary software to dedicated hardware out of business (all but one, anyway - Apple).

Google Editions will essentially be an online store for digital books. However, unlike Amazon, Google offers no dedicated eReader for the books it will sell. You will be able to read it on any electronic device, from handheld readers to desktop computers, that can access the internet. That is similar to the model Microsoft used - they sold no hardware but made software that could be used on any brand of hardware. Perhaps some device makers will try to keep Google Editions off of their readers, but they will do so at great peril as Google Editions books will likely have the greatest visibility, perhaps the widest selection, maybe some of the best prices.

Google Editions will primarily hold the books you purchase in the "cloud," rather than on your device. In other words, you can pick them up via an internet connection from your account at any time, anywhere, on any device. However, Google will also put the book on your eReader's cache, so that you don't need to stay constantly connected to the internet to continue reading. This differs from the Kindle arrangement where you download the book once and it remains permanently in the Kindle's memory.

When launched, it is expected that Google Editions will only offer new books from participating publishers. Last year, Google estimated they would start with 500,000 titles. Not only will these books be available for purchase through Google's site (Google Books), but they will allow individual booksellers to sell access through their own sites. In keeping with the business philosophy of Google's "Adwords" advertising program, the company does not look to make big money on any transaction. It looks to take a small cut on millions and millions of transactions.

Google will not initially be offering older books currently the subject of a proposed settlement and contentious litigation. The search engine giant will apparently await the legal resolution of that can of worms before attempting to offer any books subject to this litigation through Google Editions.

Speaking of that can of worms, the American Society of Media Photographers seriously upped the worm count by entering the legal fray. Google has been scanning older books and making them available for viewing online. Many if not most are out of copyright, but many others are not. However, copyright holders are in many cases long gone and difficult if not practically impossible to identify or locate. So, Google reached a settlement with groups representing authors and publishers to offer these in-copyright books for sale and put sales receipts (minus Google's cut) in trust for the copyright holders, should they ever show up. However, many other authors and publishers, along with other groups (including competitors such as Amazon and Yahoo) challenged this settlement, stating that no group has a right to reach a settlement on behalf of these unknown copyright holders. In other words, their position is that unless Google can first locate these hard to locate people and obtain their permission, they may not make digital copies of their books available. Arguments have been made and currently the judge handling the case is working on his decision. Which way he will go remains a mystery.

Now come the photographers and illustrators, and if their objections are upheld, it is hard to imagine how these books will ever be made available digitally to the public (other than illegal downloading, as happened with music and movies before). Their position is that the photographers and illustrators who provided images for these old books are entitled to a share of the proceeds too. So, proceeds from a book with illustrations and photographs from 50 different photographers and illustrators would have to be divided among these people along with the primary copyright holder. Good luck figuring this out.

When I was in first grade, a drawing I made appeared in some book on education, probably not in a very complimentary way, but as an example of what artistically challenged six-year-olds can produce (in other words, it looked like a Picasso). I have no idea what book it was anymore or anything else about it. All I know is that I want my cut. Watch out, Google. You'll be hearing from my lawyer.

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