A recent trip to Europe brought home to me the fact that the American and European publishing worlds are divided by far more than an ocean. In Paris as in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, all publishing talk sooner or later turns to the matter of Google. But in Europe. the talk often turns ugly.
Whatever one thinks of Google (and all publishers think about Google), there is little doubt that in just a few years, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have become the most influential people in the publishing industry, at least in the U.S., taking that distinction away from Jeff Bezos.
(Nostalgists recall when the Riggios (who control Barnes & Noble) ruled the roost, or, going back even further, when Harry Hoffman was the big dog. I doubt that anyone currently active in the industry can remember a time when the most influential person in publishing was a publisher. Bennett Cerf, perhaps?)
The European animus toward Google stems from many things, not least of which is that Google is viewed as very much an American company. But beyond nationalist passions is a misunderstanding of the scope of the Google enterprise. As fans of Star Trek know, resistance to the Borg is futile. Google is now the defining entity in the information landscape. To flourish, as best as publishers can hope to flourish, it’s necessary to find a place within the Google ecosystem. There is no world elsewhere, no little pocket of commerce beyond the reach of Google’s audience aggregation, no opportunity to erect protectionist barriers or to appeal to the legacy of one’s own institutions. To those who resent Google’s huge bulk and ambition, it has to be said: Get over it.
Part of the resistance to Google derives from the company’s view of copyright, which, at least to European ears, sounds entirely wrong. Even for those, including myself, who have a traditional view of copyright (that is, during the term of copyright, copyright serves the interests of the producer), might pick nits.
However, it has to be said that whether Google’s view ultimately prevails or not (I think it will), obsessing about this one aspect of the Google program obscures what is happening in the marketplace and all the new publishing opportunities Google is creating.
For example, even as publishers take umbrage over the unauthorized digitization of copyrighted material in the Google Book Search project, it has to be recognized that the core Google search function, located at http://google.com, is a leading, and for many sites, the leading source of Web traffic. Not all publishers value Web traffic as they should, which leads to an underestimation of Google’s significance. If a publisher has traditionally worked through channels (principally bookstores, whether online or bricks-and-mortar), the implications of a direct relationship with end-users or customers may not be fully understood.
With the various Google Book Search features, publishers also have a number of intriguing ways to engage readers. Google enables readers to search inside the book, which should yield more traffic, some portion of which can be converted to sales. Google also publishes its API (application program interface), which allows some of the features on its site, including the ability to search inside a book, to appear on the publisher’s Web site.
Let’s ponder this for a minute. How many publishers could have created the “search inside” feature on their own? How large does a publisher have to be to make this kind of IT investment? And here Google is essentially giving it away to publishers. I have heard Google referred to as “a taker, not a maker,” but if it is a taker, it’s one with an unexpected and apparently magnanimous ethical calculus.
The useful services Google provides to publishers keep growing. Google Editions, which is expected to be introduced shortly, will enable the sale of ebooks. Just what a publisher will be able to do with those ebooks is still something of a mystery — or at least it’s partly a mystery, making it hard to distinguish what Google plans to do with the endless speculation about Google’s strategy. (This underscores the fact that Google is a premium brand: the aura surrounding the company is many times larger than the company’s services themselves.) From Google’s declared aim to allow online retailers to resell Google Editions, it appears probable that once again there will be a published API so that publishers as well as retailers can put the Google Editions on their own sites. Google will charge for sales of Google Editions, but Google’s share is less than what publishers traditionally give to booksellers. Google Editions will be viewable through any Web browser, which opens up intriguing questions as to whether this will serve as a form of DRM. What happens when you close the browser? If you can cache the ebook offline, can a browser-based solution allow copies to be shared? We shall see, but in the meantime it appears that Google is trying hard to make their services palatable to publishers. It’s almost as though Google is saying, “Look — you give us us mass digitization, and we will give you everything else.”
With the invention of the motion picture by Thomas Edison, the book lost its place as the center of the media universe. All other innovations, from radio to television to the Internet, helped to push the book out further. Now we live within a media landscape that has no center, but which does have a dominant issue, and that is the matter of online discovery, for which search engines, and Google in particular, are the dominant modes.
Google does not always behave the way publishers would like it to, but that’s true of any large company. Nor is it always respectful of the media types that preceded it — the prerogative of the young, brash, and successful. The question for publishers, however, isn’t whether Google sits up straight in class with its hands folded on the desk, but whether any publisher can afford to ignore this upstart.
For publishers, this is the Google century, or maybe just the Google decades, but either way, not to engage this extraordinary organization is likely to lead to obscurity.