Have you tried Google’s Book Search? Talk about frustrating. I just keyed in “nabokov crown jewels pale fire,” to find the latest thinking on that novel’s supreme and running joke. I got some glimpses of Brian Boyd’s 1999 book-length analysis, but mostly its conclusion—along with the full index, the irony presumably unintended. I got two quick glosses on Nabokov’s famous interview in which he mocked the scholar and critic Alfred Appel’s eagerness to learn the secret of the jewels: “Where, please, are the crown jewels hidden?” Nabokov’s nonanswer answer was included, and in one case nothing else, since the “snippet view” (from a collection of Nabokov’s nonfiction, Strong Opinions) was just 30 words long, some of them chopped in half. There was a touch more disembodied analysis from a Cambridge University Press collection, but basically that was it.

To read recent coverage of Google’s plans to scan every book (with or without the permission of the publishers), index it, and make it available digitally, you’d think Google itself had found the crown jewels. The New Yorker borrowed a Google executive’s description of the book project—“our moon shot”—as the title of an article. Jason Epstein in The New York Review of Books posited the saga of the Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as a kind of fast-tracked recapitulation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. More precisely:

The confrontation of founders who wish to do only good with the complex reality of their astonishing commercial achievement is an issue of biblical scope which calls to mind the expulsion, naked and trembling, of our ancestral parents from prelapsarian Eden into a world where choice is obligatory and error inevitable, a blessing and a burden upon themselves and what Milton called, with mixed feelings, their hapless seed.

Google’s effort, Epstein went on, creates “for the first time in human history … the theoretical possibility that every book ever printed in whatever language will be available to everyone on earth with access to the Internet.” But all of this assumes people will actually want to use Google Book Search.

As Google shock-and-awe replaces Microsoft-terror among Sergey and Larry’s hapless seed, it might be worth pointing out that the Google books project (and its emerging Microsoft competitor), while astonishing and ambitious and intuitively ingenious, is both a more promising and a less earth-transforming prospect than either its detractors or its proponents think. Google Book Search, currently in beta, reliably offers full looks only at works that are out of copyright. (Out-of- copyright works represent just one-sixth of the total available, according to an analysis by Stanford University’s Lawrence Lessig.) The rest are copyrighted and therefore accessible only if the holder has allowed access (usually as a “limited preview”) or under the principles of fair use (see snippet-view nonsense above). If this experience prompts anything, it will be a quick flight to your bookstore or local library. Unless publishers and authors suddenly, lemminglike, grant Google broader rights, there’s no reason to believe this search experience will become any more edifying. In other words, unless the authors and publishers get on board, Google Book Search will fail. Microsoft—thanks to its aggressive wooing of publishers with its own book-digitization product, and its recent efforts to stoke public outrage over Google’s ripped-from-Microsoft-circa-five-years-ago tactics—actually stands a better chance of succeeding.

What specifically upsets publishers is Google’s hardball tactic of scanning works wholesale. This has led publishers, some of whom are also working with Google on the Book Search project, to file lawsuits claiming that the scanning itself constitutes a copyright violation. It’s a classically compromised old-media position. But I think the unarticulated fear is that Google has forced the pace of change in a way that unmans them. Following this logic, if Google becomes the dominant portal into books, indiscriminately mashing together current trade products and out-of-print oddities, it will threaten the traditional prerogative of the book biz to narrow down the number of titles the public can choose from. If the choice goes entirely to users via Google’s strength in search, the system that undergirds the current book-publishing model will collapse.

Publishing is caught in a textbook example of a digital-era vise. As Google and Microsoft—indeed, the entire culture—take flight on the weightless, frictionless wings of digital, book publishing remains shackled to the kind of business model that would ruin a less stolid industry (or a more profit-minded one). Books are notoriously expensive to produce, distribute, and sell, and long-standing distribution deals (some clauses dating back to the Depression) often require publishers to pay for shipping crates of books to and from retailers. Publishers bid, often in a blind auction, to advance money to an author, who may or may not deliver the work promised. Then they have to edit, print, distribute, and market said work, often paying outlets such as Barnes & Noble to put it someplace where a customer might actually see it. If the book doesn’t take off in the short time booksellers—who are rapidly diversifying into anything else they can sell, from DVDs to coffee—allow for new releases, the author keeps his advance, and the publisher must pay to have the copies shipped back (the timing at the discretion of the retailer), then either warehouse, pulp, or resell them as remainders. Profits not guaranteed.

Nevertheless, books remain a popular content platform. According to a publishing trade group, from 2002 through 2005, the last year for which data are available, the value of trade books sold increased from $6 billion to almost $8 billion. Even accounting for inflation and the Harry Potter effect, this is an encouraging figure, sufficiently against the trend of other old media to warrant some optimism. The purchasing of business books and self-help books presumably accounts for much of the increase, but there’s also a less-publicized upsurge in reading among teenagers. “Not only are teen book sales booming—up by a quarter between 1999 and 2005,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported in March, “but the quality is soaring as well. Older teens in particular are enjoying a surge of sophisticated fare as young adult literature becomes a global phenomenon.”

One can debate whether current reading habits are cause for optimism or deep despair, but the excitement teens have shown in reading real books, paid for with real money—even if too many of them are titled The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—means that Google’s final triumph is far from certain. Publishers are operating from a position of strength, not weakness. It’s very hard to believe that Google, which has so far respected the rights of copyright holders when it comes to displaying the scanned works, would ever be able to stretch copyright law to be able to function profitably without the help of publishers. So far, all Google has created is a marketing platform for libraries and booksellers.

Still, what Google is offering should be important to publishers: a new way to think about books, one that releases the content from the binding. Counterintuitively, books on paper are a singularly inefficient way to distribute knowledge. Most books are damned to a short shelf life and shockingly limited readership. If your book sells more than 10,000 copies, you are hugely lucky. If you can make a living writing books, consider yourself a genius. Google and Microsoft and the broader digitization initiative, while seeming to treat content as shovelware, actually take writing seriously, using search to link authors to a dedicated audience in perpetuity without concern for the vagaries of geography, lending practices, shelf space, and gatekeepers.

As I’ve tried to show in previous blue-sky ponderings in this space, the digital age is heaven for consumers, hell for creators. The trick of this moment is figuring out how to continue to support substantial creative effort while we careen toward the digital rapture of Jason Epstein’s (OK, and my) imaginings. In his New York Review essay, Epstein argued that publishing should follow music toward a digital distribution model, but I’d push for publishing to follow the movies. Think of a hardcover novel as the book equivalent of limited theatrical release for a movie. Softcover is the equivalent of “going wide,” when a movie ends up in thousands of multiplexes (and I suppose it’s a sad statement on the cultural value of books that you can borrow almost any new book for free from a library, but when you “borrow” a new movie, it’s called bootlegging). Once the opportunities of printed distribution are used up, the value of most books quickly dissipates, as they gather dust in libraries and used-book stores—they become part of the 75 percent of titles still copyrighted but out of print identified in Lessig’s study. Google Book Search could offer them a whole new life.

Under my fantasy scenario, publishers and authors would let Google digitize—in scanned and text form—everything that’s published, allowing that 75 percent of works to be sold via machines like a recently deployed “book ATM.” This machine, called the Espresso (the above-mentioned Jason Epstein is a backer), promises to print and bind on demand, within about four minutes, any book in its digital repository. A beta version sits in the World Bank, and a second machine should be at the New York Public Library by the time you read this.

I wouldn’t place bets on the Espresso just yet (a colleague trying to check out the World Bank beta found it closed for repair), but it, or some future iteration, is a viable model for the millions of titles in that 75 percent. Indeed, this would be a case of forward to the past: Until the early 19th century, cloth and paper bindings were temporary solutions for purchasers, who would then pay to have their works permanently bound in leather. The advent of mass cloth binding in the mid-19th century, John Carter noted in his classic ABC for Book Collectors,

meant that the publisher assumed a part of the final cost of the book which had in previous centuries been borne by the purchaser, whether on his own binders’ bill or in the extra price charged for copies bound by the retail or wholesale bookseller.

Publishing has been a crappy business for even longer than I thought.

If the Espresso model is the publishing equivalent of DVDs, subscription lending libraries, built on low-cost printing and binding, could be the publishing version of Netflix. Alternately, e-books could emerge as a real business if millions of titles become available digitally. They could be accessible via an iTunes model or a low-cost subscription fee (like the video-on-demand your cable operator offers). A significant chunk of the money would go to the publishers and authors. On any given work, this is pennies, but over millions of works it’s a plausible business.

Why would Google agree to this deal? Here’s why. After, let’s say, 10 years, Google (or Microsoft or anyone else who wants in) gets the unfettered right to offer these works, complete, online. This is a great deal for Google, if it’s taking the long view. Under post-1978 copyright law, the copyright holder maintains control of a work even after it goes out of print, for his lifetime plus 70 years. So Google gets rights a good century or so sooner. And it collects a massive library of content it can monetize through search and through display advertising. As part of the deal, Google presumably would continue to pay content owners, passing along a portion of the proceeds into eternity, just as writers, actors, and directors are paid residuals through their guilds.

Clearly there would have to be exceptions to this model: If a work continues to sell in printed form, as Freakonomics has, the publisher could delay the process. Ditto for perennials like The Great Gatsby or A Confederacy of Dunces. Or both sides could agree that it’s fine for works to be digitally accessible even while they continue to be sold in bound form. Roughly speaking, such a deal would both reward the content creators and give Google and Microsoft the access they desperately need to build a real business in digital book distribution.

Ultimately, I think, we all win. As information consumers, it’s hard not to wish for a world in which the entirety of humanity’s published output—its most considered and ambitious thinking—is available instantly, anywhere (Shakespeare in Timbuktu, if you will). It’s also hard not to wish for a world where books, and authors, can thrive. Bring on the rapture.