Google's Book Search Battles

The Weekly Standard has a lengthy article taking a look at the landscape of Google’s plans to digitize the world’s books.

Not surprisingly they’re facing resistance from some corners. In general, the approach Google is taking to book search is similar to what they’ve done since Day 1 with websites. The biggest difference is that they have to turn the books into a computer readable format for indexing:

Google and Its Enemies

And here lies Google’s dilemma: Out-of-copyright books account for about one-sixth of all titles. Most books–75 percent of them–are in copyright, but out of print. Only about 10 percent of all books are both copyrighted and in print. Google has decided to get around this problem of copyright protection by simply ignoring it: forging ahead and scanning books, regardless of their copyright status. If a book is in the public domain, its full text is displayed to users, but if the book is protected, then Google shows users only a “snippet” of the text surrounding the search result. It is relevant to note that “snippet” is Google’s word and is intentionally not a legal term; how much text is displayed is entirely at Google’s discretion.

The snippet system has worked well for Google on the web. Provide a taste of what people can expect to find at the original source, then take people to the original source for further reading. It drives massive amounts of traffic to every site on the web today.

I think this is something publishers don’t fully understand yet, but will eventually come to grips with. It’s good to allow people to get a taste of your writing. In fact, if you’ve spent much time in bookstores you’ll know that anyone buying a book first opens the book and pages through it. The web makes it possible to discover more books of interest than they’d find on a trip to even the largest physical bookstore.

The Exception

The biggest exception I’ve seen to this is actually quite glaring: reference books.

Searching for any keyword within a reference book is a much different experience than doing the same thing with a novel. In the case of a novel, it provides access to a short snippet of a story. With reference books, it provides answers that, once consumed, make the book less valuable.

Admittedly, it would be stupid to buy an entire reference book on programming, books of word definitions, or manuals for occasional use, but that’s exactly what happens today.

To solve this, I think manual creators will find that they’re better off avoiding Google’s Book Search and similar programs like Amazon’s peek inside feature. Rather, they should consider subscription based all-you-can-consume business models for online access to their reference materials.

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