I’ve Seen the Vision of the eBook Future via Google and Random House and It Stinks

GoogleIn 2004, Google announced its plan to scan every book printed. They began working with university libraries such as Harvard, University of Michigan, and Oxford.

This caused the publishing industry some great consternation because an author’s work would be included automatically unless the author chose to opt out. Problem was that Google never alerted the individual copyright holders of its process so unless you received notice from your agent or publisher, you may not have known. Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Authors Guild filed copyright infringement suits. The AAP claims that Google is engaging in licensing without paying for it.

For me, as a reader who loves ebooks, I was less concerned about this. This type of technology and the one that is employed by Amazon and being developed by Random House and Harper Collins aids a reader in previewing a book before its purchased. It’s all about the excerpt, baby. Amazon claims that those books that feature “search inside” utility have a 7% greater sales rate than for books that do not.

But everyone knew that Google’s book project was more than just providing a service, preserving knowledge and creating a universal library. It is about making money. First, Google was going to sell ad revenue that accompanied book search results just like the search engine results are accompanied by paid ads. No problem.

On January 18, 2007, Google shared information with 400 publishers its plan for Google Reaader which was not dissimilar to the one Random House has. This plan allows readers to search and then charge a per page viewing price. You will also be able to purchase the entire book.

The catch? According to the fine print, noted by a user at Mobile Read, Google is not going to allow you to download the book. Instead, the book or page or paragraph will be available to you through Google’s special online viewer. Ditto with Random House. Random House suggests that a fiction title would cost about four cents per page for every page beyond the free sample or perhaps 99 cents for 20 pages. A 300 page book would then cost $15.00 which you can only view online.

According to the Google spokesperson, the key to Google’s access is online viewing. As an example, here is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen published in 1892 and from the Harvard University Library. It is not a book that has been scanned in and then the words recognized and made into an electronic book. Rather it is a series of images that can only be read with an appropriately sized screen (something larger than the Sony Reader).

David RothmanBranko Collin, of Teleread.org, says that this sounds “spooky.” I say it sounds like Google was on crack when it thought up this brainless idea. Ditto with Random House.

Just so that I understand this concept correctly, I get an excerpt and if I want a longer excerpt, I have to pay for it and if I want to read the entire digital copy then I have to pay a premium for Google and Random House to dictate to me when, where and how I can read it. If I want to read in bed or on a plane or at lunch, I am pretty much stuck with reading Skymall.

This idea is so ridiculously bad that I start to wonder if I am actually reading these news articles correctly. Surely a business as savvy as Google wouldn’t be so ignorant of the reading public. Surely a company that actually does nothing but provide content to readers, such as Random House, would understand that readers don’t want to read on their laptops and only when there is online access. Did they think to themselves that if they charge two times the cost of a paperbook and allow only online access that people will believe that its a great idea and sign up in droves?

Not me. I am not drinking the Kool-Aid. I would rather buy paper books and give up e-reading altogether if this is the direction of epublishing. This type of super restricted access will only encourage piracy as suggested by David Rothman. Readers want to own the books that they pay for and they want to control when, where, and how those books are read.


0 comments on “I’ve Seen the Vision of the eBook Future via Google and Random House and It Stinks

  1. This is such an all-over sucky idea that it makes my head hurt. Do they honestly think people are so stupid as to pay those prices for that number of restrictions. Jane, I join you in your Kool-Aid strike.

  2. This doesn’t make sense from whichever angle you view it.

    I wonder if this is one of those cases where a business does something wacky to get something into court so they can win a concession either through litigation or settlemt that they couldn’t negotiate that enables them to bring forward (another!) something they’ve got simmering on the back burner.

    Or, it could just be a wacky idea. *G*

  3. I can see how this might still be attractive for readers who want to look at books which are very, very expensive, for example academic texts/reference works. Libraries and individuals can subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary, for example, and can then search it online but are not able to download the whole dictionary. Given the very, very high costs of buying some academic texts, the price per page you mention would still be cheap. These are probably also likely to be works which you wouldn’t want to read in bed (unless you thought that was an alternative to counting sheep) but from which you’d probably be taking notes, so it would be convenient to have a word processing programme handy, and you’d therefore probably be likely to read them via a laptop or other computer.

    I can’t see why anyone would want to pay that much for a book that’s available relatively cheaply in paperback, though.

  4. Oh, and the reason I thought there might be an academic angle to this is because you mentioned that ‘They began working with university libraries such as Harvard, University of Michigan, and Oxford’. You don’t generally find large quantities of mass-market paperbacks in university libraries. You are likely to find lots of large and/or rare hardback volumes.

  5. Ladies,

    Google’s version was originally designed to catalog, digitize, then redistribute online various academic library collections of out of copyright, public domain books. Then the dollar signs popped in, the money angle hit and it became – scan everything and charge for it. The libraries who originally signed up and helped Google with their book scheme couldn’t afford to have their slowly crumbling rare book collections digitized to save them from decay.

    If they had stuck with the original plan, I’d be saying more power to them because then I could have access to rare books that I can find locally, can’t afford to buy as they are expensive as all hell, nor can I get access to by visiting as you have to be a member of the community to get access to it – usually a professor, graduate student or alumni researcher.

    Now, I’m thinking, screw this… you’re just in it for profit, stop lying about how it’s to get more books to the reading public.


  6. Readers want to own the books that they pay for and they want to control when, where, and how those books are read.

    You’d think Google would get that. They pretty much control most things on the internet these days, but this move would be a big mistake.

    Talk about pissing on their chips.

    There really is such a thing as being too big.

  7. Dr. Vivanco:

    According to the Washington Post article, Google intends to digitize all books and, I would assume, make them available for sale. Random House wants to do it for their content and is offering up its technology for other publishers to use to offer content digitally.

    Perhaps for some academic books this may be worthwhile, but I would rather use interlibrary loan or something than to pay 5 cents per page. It seems cheap, but it adds up quickly.

  8. Just a minor note: I believe it was I that used the word “spooky”. I am not sure if I was being entirely serious. The spooky bit refers to the technology that Google has to use to prevent you from downloading the book: either they force you to download some code with which you voluntarily cripple your own pc, or they illegally sneak up that software on you, or they only make it more difficult for the casual user.

    I guess the spooky most referred to Google’s presumed eagerness to abandon its motto of Don’t Be Evil.

  9. I believe, btw, that the idea of selling access to pages is (somewhat) similar to the idea of selling songs through iTunes (instead of selling whole albums, what the previous business model was). Obviously this won’t work for novels (except perhaps the really popular ones), but it may well work for reference works. Do you need the entire book on Greece when you go to holiday on Crete? Do you need every dessert recipe in the book when all you want to do is make Crême Brulée? This, I guess, is the market Google is after.

    Another reason I do not get entirely worked up over this is that almost every type of search apart from regular web search that Google attempted was badly exuceted. Google News is a shadow of what it could be, Google Images is hardly the best way to find images and so on. The more gaps Google keeps creating in the search experience, the more likely it is someone will come along and do it better than them.

  10. Mr. Collin, thank you for correcting my error. The reason I find this disturbing is because it is not limited to non fiction books and Random House is in the business of selling fiction not text books. RH also talks about licensing this product.

    You may not be familiar with Avon’s Fan Lit project. It was a contest whereby aspiring authors got to write chapters of a book that were voted upon by the readers. In the end, a 6 chapter novella was completed. A free version of this was given away to readers but the problem was that you could only read it using a special viewer. The special viewer did not allow you to use page up/page down keys to navigate and it was not downloadable. Further, I believe that it was only available online.

    This type of format is not only frustrating to work (not use the pg up/dn keys?), but it is also very constraining for the reader. I ended up buying the novella in my preferred format at Fictionwise.

    This micropayment (ie, the pay per page or the pay per tune idea) is a way for businesses to maximize profits much like publishers do with the issuance of hardcovers, trades followed by the cheaper mass market. I don’t want to have to pay MORE of a premium for e content than I already do and this is what it is looking like is going to happen.

    We are like frogs in the cooking pot. As the heat slowly turns up, we don’t realize we are cooked until it is too late. If you are buying a page at 4 or 5 cents, you think to yourself this is cheap. But when you eventually decide to buy that book and receive credit for what you have already spent, you will have paid twice as much if not more for the online version that is locked down and controlled by the publisher as you will if you had bought the paper version.

    Over time, it probably makes more financial sense to buy a scanner and the paper books and simply make your own ecopies.

  11. If Google sorts out their legal/contractual issues and digitizes rare books (for example from the rare book section of the Bodleian Library at Oxford which I will never have the credentials to see in person), I would be willing to pay to view the digital copies. And if they fund the digitization of rare books by other offerings, I don’t care. I see this as a small segment of the digital market.

    On the other hand, RandomHouse is spending their digital funding on “search inside” and have limited resources for other digital initiatives. This is an initiative that I would like to see fail.

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