Skip to Content

The next chapter in the Google wars

7 November 2005

Publishers are beginning to take the initiative in the Google Print wars, perhaps not before time, as they suddenly find themselves confronted by a digital future which is not somewhere off in the future but very much in the here and now. The hard lesson the Napster free downloads taught the music business has not been lost on the big publishers.

There are signs also that the giants of the Internet are ready to move on into a different digital world. Amazon appears to be working on a new business model which would allow them to sell rights to access the full text of books online, perhaps as an add-on to a print book purchase. This might in due course enable book-buyers to compile a searchable online personal library, hosted by an e-tailer - such as Amazon.

Microsoft, mindful of the Google threat, has just launched MSN Book Search and joined the Open Content Alliance. The company will pay $5 million to fund the scanning of 150,000 books.

Google is rumoured to be working on schemes to allow paid-for short-term access to entire books online and is also interested in having the capacity to turn hosted digital files into print on demand books. The Online Computer Library Center estimates that only 18 percent of the books Google Print is scanning in libraries are definitively in the public domain, published prior to 1923 - which leaves an awful lot of books in those libraries which are still in copyright.

In the light of this battle of the Internet titans for control of the digital content locked up in books, it's reassuring to hear that publishers are beginning to come up with a few ideas of their own. Holtzbrink/Macmillan have launched Bookstore, which is a facility for storing digital content and making it available in different forms, which will be a service they will offer to other publishers.

Random House in the UK is meeting the challenge decisively by investing several million pounds in creating a digital archive and exploring the opportunities presented by digitisation. Their view is that whatever the security measures, someone will find a way to break through them. Ian Hudson, Group MD of Random House, says that: 'The longer that legitimately controlled content remains unavailable, the more incentive pirates will have, and the greater the piracy problem will be.'

Hudson, quoted in Publishing News, has come up with a view writers could happily endorse: 'Google and Amazon represent huge opportunities for us as channels for selling digital content electronically, but not as they are currently configured. Content must be paid for and Internet players will need to develop commercially viable 'pay as you go' models before we would sign up. By commercially viable, I mean a model where authors are properly rewarded and publishers can receive a suitable income to help pay for our huge investments in archives etc.'