Skip to Content



Digitalization/Google and all that....

Nick Webb, publisher turned author, comments on what GoogleWorld might mean for authors

When I first turned to writing I resolved to resist the personality disorders that decades of dealing with authors made me associate with the species. You know: insecurity, jealous rage, plangent whingeing, emotional neediness, and - above all - endless anxiety about money. Unfortunately they all swept over me within minutes of changing from one side of the desk to the other.

It is that fearful preoccupation with the folding stuff that informs this argument.

If Google succeeds with this project – even if it starts only with public domain titles – it will be able to offer the most seductive information service on the planet. (Spare a thought for those scholars who have spent their lives in musty libraries learning how to tunnel through Alps of information looking for interesting connections. With a few clicks of a mouse, a sprog will do better.)

Why will the Google service be unbeatable? Because it will make the greatest archive on Earth searchable. That’s the archive called All the Books in the World.

At the moment Google concedes that titles in copyright can be excluded at the proprietor’s choice. But even if publishers and authors succeed in keeping protected work out of Google, eventually - presuming no greater human catastrophe – their books too will come into the public domain.

And why cavil? Perhaps some apocalypse will freeze the culture and we will preserve the canon on Google, rather like those monks illuminating circuit diagrams in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Universal digitization will make it easy to publish, but exceedingly difficult to pay for anything new to be written.

Currently astonishing quantities of books are produced – with some exceptions - on the old economic model. Advances are paid to authors by publishers for the right to sell the resulting work that, in many cases, is commissioned before it is created. Despite our preoccupation with "content", the incarnation of the work most often flogged by the publisher takes the form of a block of laminated wood pulp having a certain value. A whole network of distributors and knowledgeable retailers rely upon it. When, please God, it is sold to the public, enough income trickles back up the rococo supply chain for all parties just about to make a living. In addition to their salaries and lunch, publishers can afford to invest in the creation of more titles.

But what happens in GoogleWorld (assuming for a moment that the copyright titles are hoovered up) when the current generation of books is getting old? This question applies more aptly to academic publishing and trade non-fiction than to paperback fiction, which is likely to remain an ideal way of delivering that particular pleasure for many years. Yet non-fiction is the backbone of many a list – especially now that the chains seem to want only about three hundred fiction-writers. What commercial transaction funds the next generation of books?

Software like Paypal works well. Doubtless – if they do not already exist – similar systems (Bookpal?) can be devised that will cope with the greater complexity of collecting many small permission fees from millions of readers and distributing them to the interested parties. On a smaller scale organizations like the ALCS have a lot of experience in doing something similar.

The schedule of payment is of the essence here. Perhaps an author will eventually make as much from downloads as he or she would have earned from an advance – maybe more. But the money will come after the work is published. You would have to be a well-heeled writer to take a couple of years off to write your definitive book on Etruscan chamber pots that turns out to be a serendipitous bestseller. Maybe – a depressing thought – only academics will have the time to write.

Come on, I hear you saying, publishers will still pay advances. Yes, but against what – and when? If traditional book sales fall – as surely they must – the paper version of the work will become a bibliophile’s indulgence, generating less income, though possibly at better margins. The income from downloads will be discontinuous and bitty. Many readers – especially of text books – will prefer to pay their 37p for the two pages they want, rather than £20 for the entire tome. Cash flow, already the bane of the business, will slow to a drip. Advances must fall, and unearned advances – either as the result of shrewd calculation or misjudgment - will be as rare as an Isle of Lewis fruitbat.

If GoogleWorld really takes off, authors will also have to ask themselves what publishers bring to the party. It will not be distribution. Individuals and great corporations will have the same access to a global network. Publishers will offer the cachet of their imprint, their editing skills and panache at marketing. Authors are often bitterly cynical about these virtues, especially the last. Will there be enough money in the GoogleWorld environment for proper marketing budgets? Perhaps publishers will shrink to just editors and marketing people. Maybe Google will become the world’s publisher.

If, despite the obstacles, an author becomes established, he or she would have to wonder whether a traditional publisher were needed at all. Why share the download income (can you imagine how vexed the haggling over that split will be?) if the publisher is neither funding the writing nor needed to promote the result?

GoogleWorld offers a potentially brilliant resource, one I would use in a heartbeat. But it’s short-term. By plundering history, it undermines the economic basis of a market that in its bumbling and inefficient way has served as a repository of culture and learning (and a deal of crap too, it must be said) for centuries.

After working for many years as an editor and publisher, Nick Webb became MD of Simon and Schuster Ltd.  He is now a full-time author and has published the authorised biography of Douglas Adams. His A Dictionary of Bullshit has just been published by Robson Books at £9.99.

This article was first published on, a site hosted by EPS Ltd where contributions from both sides of the debate can be found.

© Nick Webb 2005

Related Items in our Amazon Store

List price: £7.99
Publisher: Robson Books Ltd
Sales rank: 799,327