Content June 2007

The Hapless Seed

Publishers and authors should stop cowering; Google is less likely to destroy the book business than to slingshot it into the 21st century.

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.

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Michael Hirschorn is the executive vice president of original programming and production at VH1.

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