In 2005, Google decided to launch a controversial campaign to digitize the world’s information and place it all in a digitally accessible and completely free, ad-sponsored database called Google Print. Initially, although this seems a good idea, allowing readers and researchers around the world access to a host of material only previously held in dusty archives at Harvard university, the revolutionary way in which this project could shape the economics in academic and publishing sectors of the literary market has serious implications for all small academic presses, often highly dependent on library sales and copyright to make enough profit to stay afloat.
Although the initiation of Google Print has not been without its obvious difficulties, especially concerning copyright, the reduction of whole libraries into simple ad-sponsored information, and the questions many companies (who later filed a lawsuit) have over the ways in which this project will distribute the wealth gained from pay-per-view sales and advertising revenue is a particular point of concern for publishers. However, despite this, many different academic publishers and libraries were keen to embrace and exploit this new initiative, seeing in it a way of disseminating works that would otherwise only be available in specific libraries. Susan Kuchinskas says that, long before the first version of Google print was released, “Google had begun working with University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford and Oxford Universities, and the New York City Public Library to digitize public-domain books in their collections.”
This initially clandestine operation to digitize the worlds books has serious implications for academic publishers, the ways in which people read and consume the text, and also poses a serious threat to the world of the printed book, a legacy that has protected, and indeed heralded the small academic printing presses as a bastion for disseminating high-quality information that other, more mainstream publishers would choose to ignore. Barbara Fister and Niko Pfund say that independent presses are more passionate about important literature: “[t]rade houses in New York City said ‘good book, but no way we can publish it.
This stuff is radioactive.’ So the University of Minnesota Press took it on—and got in a world of trouble with conservative critics and eventually its legislature. The press could have lost its funding, could have lost everything, but the publisher didn't back down.” Indeed, the funding mechanisms of Google Print has taken a great deal of sustained criticism from authors, scholars and publishers alike, and it is thought that it will take a while before these problems are eventually ironed out, even though there is a certain air of inevitability to the entire venture.
So there are a number of difficulties that the academic presses are pushing to get noticed. Steven Levy, in Newsweek, says that “[the digitization process] involves Google's success in transforming this informational bounty into an amazingly profitable enterprise. It's based on the very reasonable premise that ads are most effective when pegged to what you want to know, as opposed to what you want to watch.” Of course their concern is justified to an extent. The exploitation of various texts available by academic publishers, using ad revenue to add further revenue to the coffers of the massive Google enterprise, is one that has serious potential of undercutting the actual presses that publish the work. In an email sent out on September 23rd, the Author’s Guild stressed that:
“Google is worth roughly $90 billion, making staggering profits through its online advertising programs. Its investment in Google Library is intended to bring even more visitors and profits to its website and ancillary services. The Guild is all for profit, but when the profit comes from the works of authors, the authors should be properly compensated.”
Indeed, the power of Google here is a very important factor, as the Author’s guild suggested, they are not a charity organisation, and exist primarily on the basis of making profit, even if they do so in a way that provides consumers with a free, easily accessible search engine, and even if they base their business ideology on the free distribution of information. And also, it has to be stressed that academic presses aren’t exactly in a particularly healthy state as it is. According to Barbara Fister, this is because of the gradual tightening up and the privatisation of funding given to libraries for distributing their works – a major outlet for academic publishers is the library, who can afford the expensive price of academic work, and can also distribute the information to scholars who generally wouldn’t ordinarily be able to afford access to the material. In the NACUA conference held on November 10th 2005, Sanford G. Thatcher says that the problem with academic publishing is that “[w]e publish the smallest editions at the greatest cost, and on these we place the highest price, and then we try and market them to the people who can least afford them.”
So academic publishers naturally tend to take the enterprise into publishing libraries journals online both ways. Firstly, it is important that these works can become available to a bigger market, as an alternative means of distribution has to be made available beyond the crumbling and under funded American library system – on the other hand, the Google Print project may reduce the amount of money going to the actual publisher by taking effective control over the distribution process in what is effectively a monopoly of library resources. As the small academic presses are highly dependent on the high profit margins gained from library sales, an effective privatisation of the distribution process could prove disastrous to publishers and therefore to the production of alternative work.
Overall, Google Print has been fraught with difficulties and legal wrangling over copyright issues. Although the issue of public domain books being published is a relatively easy one, and is already practiced widely on the Internet by websites such as The Gutenberg Project, a non-profit e-books service offering thousands of on-line titles, as well as other sites that offer public domain material for consumption, controversially, Google have decided to offer, at the publisher’s discretion, a pay-per-view option for certain academic and historical titles previously only held in academic storage – in public places such as libraries and museums.
Naturally, this brings to light a number of questions concerning both authenticity and copyright issues, and whether it is pertinent that Google, despite their laissez-faire attitude to censorship, should be allowed control over such a vast array of archived material. The Association of American University Presses published an open letter in 2006, suggesting that there is “mounting alarm and concern at a plan that appears to involve systematic infringement of copyright on a massive scale.” Also, the systematic scanning of copyrighted material for eventual dissemination on a wide scale has prompted the Author’s Guild, a company designed primarily to protect the rights of authors, to file a lawsuit, along with five other publishing companies, against Google’s digitization of copyrighted work, seemingly against the will of the small presses whose works are being digitized by Google. They argue that:
“Google, a company whose current market capitalisation is over $80 billion and growing, plans to further expand its business by making digital copies of copyrighted works in the collections of at least two major universities, distributing copies to those libraries and displaying portions of those copies, all without permission of the copyright owners. On the libraries’ side, they are turning copies of copyrighted books over to Google for digitization and receiving digital copies of the books in return. At least one of them apparently contemplates some form of further distribution […] and all of it […] without permission of the publishers.”
Google on the other hand, stress that there is an opt-out clause, stressing on the official Google blog that “any copyright holder can exclude their books from the program.” However, the assumption is made that all books from university libraries, providing that they aren’t subjected to the opt-out clause will be at least scanned by Google. They do however make sure that work cannot be printed, copied or pasted when being accessed by readers: “Google equates viewing the displayed results of copyrighted works to the ‘experience of flipping through a book in a bookstore’ or library.
The further protect the copyright holders, Google disables the user’s print, save, cut and copy functions on the text display pages so that the user is limited to reading the information on screen.” So, seemingly, if the material is impossible to print or distribute, then copyright issues needn’t be a problem. The reaction to Google among authors groups and publishers is more about their flaunting of copyright rules, which, it is argued, are there to protect the small presses from plagiarism and exploitation by larger, more profitable businesses.
Google Print have apparently scanned works that are copyrighted and, even though they won’t publish material if an exemption letter is sent to them, the reaction is still that actually fragrantly disobeying copyright laws in such a manner doesn’t bode well in the academic press and among larger publishers, and could be seen as a way of undermining their authority over the distribution and the ownership of the text. The National Research Council suggest that: “Fundamental to these uncertainties [about ubiquitous electronic access to books] is the matter of ownership, which libraries rarely have, given that electronic information produces no fixed artifact for libraries to possess and cherish.” It appears that the advent of Google print could change the fabric of ownership on a profound level.
So, the advent of Google Print is taken by many critics and journalists as a revolution in the ways in which information is distributed, how the economics of small presses work, the importance of libraries as non-profit social and community services, and in how academic literature (as well as other literature) is read and consumed. Even in the world of small presses, the impact of the Internet on sales and distribution of literature is impossible to avoid: “The rise of the book superstore has implicitly changed the overall economics of access to books and information. Where once a good public library was the best and most accessible source of materials for many, if not most, communities, bookstores of similar size may be a few doors down the block, open longer hours, and with enough copies of popular titles to satisfy almost all comers.” And to exacerbate this trend: “most libraries and physical bookstores are dwarfed by online bookstores.”
To date, this has signalled, at first, a radicalisation of the process of bookselling on the street. Borders marketed themselves on having wide amounts of stock, reading areas, and places where people could feel relaxed and not necessarily coerced to make a purchase. Thus, the environment is very much like a library, insofar as no pressure is exerted by the company to make a purchase, and reading in such stores needn’t be illicitly conducted. The process was pushed into the digital realm in 1995 with Jeff Bezos, entrepreneur and founder of Amazon.com. The National Research Council suggest that:
“Through Amazon.com, large collections of books have come one step nearer to their readers - and no library has played a part in this dramatic convergence of reader and book. In the case of the virtual superstore, the reader controls the atmosphere, which need not be as public as a library or bookshop and may be as comfortable as reading in a lounge chair wearing fuzzy slippers and a dressing gown.”
The impact of online retailers exploiting the small presses is therefore twofold – the increased access to material that would otherwise be unavailable improves sales; but also, importantly, by undermining the role of the library, a major source of income for small academic presses has also been undermined. One imagines that the digitization of copyrighted work will have the same overall impact as the advent of the bookstore / library, as pioneered with Borders, and also Amazon.com. But Google’s interest in digitizing work may eventually have the opposite effect as intended; undermining public libraries and support for them, and pushing money from academic retailers to the big players in the distribution of academic material.
This will have the impact of reducing the amount of variety and the richness of the publishing sector, thereby making it much harder for publishers to take unnecessary risks. The same pattern, essentially a deregulation of books, is beginning to occur with TV and newspapers. As James Curran suggests with the print media: “Fewer journalists produce more stories more frequently […]. Understanding requires time, time costs, and reporters everywhere may be becoming more […] vulnerable to the well-packaged official lines produced.” So, the increased privatisation of the media sector overall, may eventually serve to reduce the amount of funding that goes to small, investigative journals and very small niche markets, which can quite easily extend to the publishing of books online.
Certainly, the whole process of bookselling has changed significantly with the commercial development of the Internet in general, and, undoubtedly the massive process of digitising entire libraries of material, a project that Google intend to partake in as soon as they can clear up the various copyright lawsuits and issues raised by small companies, will have similarly wide-sweeping effects as the beginnings of the process of globalisation and book selling began to take hold through Borders and Amazon.com. The Google Print service offers to destroy another layer separating the reader from the writer, and, in doing so, by creating a literature-on-demand system, will have profound impacts on the ways in which libraries function, the ways in which not only academic and the small presses function, but also the bigger presses, and will, for better or for worse, change the dynamics and the economics of literature away from the state funded, public sector, as is demonstrated by the slow erosion of funding toward research and local libraries, in favour of the private sector, as epitomized by the technological giants of Google and Microsoft.
Whether the impact on journals, the academic presses and the larger presses will be positive or negative is very difficult to gauge, and depends to some extent on the behaviour and the responsibility of Google, who are, despite their seemingly benevolent image, an organisation whose primary concern therefore has to be to make profit out of the other presses that will, as readers gradually abandon researching print media for a resource that is more easily available, and has a much greater stock than the average research library, and will therefore be forced to use them exclusively as a means of distribution.
Also, it is difficult to tell whether this will undermine how the “printed” word is used – instinctively, people are still drawn to the word printed in a book, as the National Research Council suggest: “an online screen is hostile to such prolonged congenial or intense reading. ‘You can’t take it to bed or to the beach or onto a bed with you,’ is the oft-heard lament.” Indeed, a great many book publishers actually offer their works online, under the assumption that online reading is much less comfortable than offline, and that it is simply a more satisfying experience overall to be in possession of the book. The crisis that small publishers are facing definitely will not resolve itself overnight, but, at a time when academic presses are frequently going bankrupt due to a lack of sales, perhaps the revenue generated from the Google Print service will give the sector a welcome boost and revitalise an industry previously held to be in steady decline. Hopefully this will prove to be the case, and, judging from Google’s relatively good track record in providing adequate supplier-side support, will treat the current lawsuits and problems with copyright as mere teething problems in generating a wholly new en-masse system of distributing information.
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