Are you ready to be Googlescanned?

Are writers’ rights being eroded by Google? Fairbanks author Michael Engelhard, who has seen his own books Googlescanned, sent this timely message in the hopes of stirring up conversation:

The Perfect Publisher…
…does not make me feel violated and cheated by allowing Google to scan my books or part of my books and post them online and make profits that don’t filter down to me, the author.

After lawsuits by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers, the mega-corporation has resumed its copyrights violation, supported by some big eastern libraries. While publishers were given the option to withhold permission to scan certain books, many (including mine) saw it as a perfect way to increase sales. Google has turned copyrights law on its head: while historically, users had to expressly ask for permission before using any content, some (like Google) now assume that the permission is granted unless told otherwise — and the law seems to condone that.

I don’t think any antagonism between publishers and their representatives on one side and authors on the other can be glossed over with phrases like “we both work in the best interest of a book.” Statements like that only disguise the nature of the relationship and that of corporate publishing.

I am curious to hear how other writers feel about this. While I recognize and appreciate the opportunities the Web offers writers, it certainly benefits big business as well — and, depending on your parameters, perhaps even more.

For more info, you can go to this Oct. 28 PC World article about the google bookscanning project.

The New York Times also weighed in, with more info about potential risks and benefits to authors.

6 thoughts on “Are you ready to be Googlescanned?”

  1. Michael, Thanks for bringing this to light. Apparently the Google Scan problem is not one poets have to worry about (poetry being the most marginalized genre in the business). Most poets would be flattered by the attention. But your concerns are legitimate and parallel concerns I have regarding another mega-web-company:Amazon. Have you ever noticed that brand new, “used” books appear on Amazon at discounted prices–sometimes marked down within 2 months of the release date? I suspect most of these books are review copies that have never been read. In fairness, I’m not sure who the culprit is–it seems bookstores and magazine editors are as guilty as Amazon on this one. I would like to see Amazon address this problem, at any rate. (Maybe a one-year moratorium on accepting used copies?) My solution as a publisher is to tastefully stamp “Review Copy” on the inside of books I send out for review. –Anne Coray, Editor/Publisher, NorthShore Press

  2. Anne,

    I don’t know about “flattered by the attention” but do sympathize with the plight of poets. (They say a book of poems is the only kind you can leave on a park bench without risking having it stolen.) But hey, at least you’re not beholden to markets and assignments.

    As the editor of several anthologies, I feel responsible for my contributors’ rights as well, and shorter pieces are being posted in their entirety by Google. Also, as an editor, I am paying fees for the right to reprint previously published materials (by other authors) — sometimes to the same presses that give these rights free of charge to Google.

    When I complained to my publisher, they basically said “Tough luck: when you signed your contract you allowed us to promote the book (electronically or otherwise) as we see fit.” That’s like selling your soul to the devil (this one’s for you aspiring authors out there, who believe you’ll have it made once you break into print). I’m wondering if the publishers of Barry Lopez and the like also give these authors’ words away for free or if publishers decide to do that only for “midlist” titles that supposedly have had their run.

    As for Amazon — I don’t excempt them from my corporate critique. Not only do they kill independent bookstores, but they also influence literary taste by the assortment they carry. (I don’t know if you noticed: they carry many titles, but if you look for something specific or more in-depth, or less recent, you’re usually out of luck. YES, I go there, to see what people are reading.)

    Most review copies have “Uncorrected proof — Not for sale” on the front cover, preferably as part of the design, not a removable sticker. The reason they can give amazing customer discounts even on recently published titles is that they get amazing discounts from the publishers. (I’m not sure, but I think more than the 40% other bookstores receives.) In an author’s contract, these discounted sales carry a lower royalty percentage, which means that the author hardly makes any money from Amazon sales. But then again, it’s about “visibility.”

    Perhaps I’m just an old crank, but how can we write about social justice and change and things like that and not tackle these questions that affect us professionally? Corporations not only destroy Nature, they also destroy the life of the mind.

    Michael E.

  3. Obviously, the corporations already affected my mind: I just realized I mixed up Amazon and Barns & Noble, because I think of them as part of the same amorphous blob. Aside from the shallow assortment of titles, however, most of my comments apply to Amazon as well.

    Michael E.

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I love the fact that you've started this conversation, Michael, and I agree with your general tone of anti-corporate skepticism. But just to play devil's advocate, I'll make a defense for amazon and other online vendors, like B&N.

    It's really hard to get books into brick & mortar bookstores — much harder than readers realize. There just isn't shelf space. More titles are being published each year (I think we're up to 2 million separate titles?), though readership isn't going up. Therefore, the market is being fragmented and bookstore "real estate" (shelf space) is becoming ridiculously expensive. Many publishers pay extra to get their books on those front-store tables. Even for a book that is pushed as a top title, it gets the best attention only for a limited number of weeks. A few months post-pub, the show is over. But luckily, for years, books are available online, and I'm grateful for that. Furthermore, amazon does what few websites OR bookstores do, which is create a more interactive atmosphere by allowing reader reviews and so on. All these things give titles chances long after bookstores and even publishers have given up.

    As for how the pricing works, it's mysterious at all levels, isn't it? Barnes & Noble online has been selling my hardcover novel for $4.98 starting soon after pub day. But that's better than what a physical bookstore would do — which is quickly return hardcovers that weren't sold within a few weeks or months, back to the publisher.

    From the author's perspective, it's not ALL about royalties. When I submit a future book, a publisher will look at how many copies were sold of my last book (among other things). I don't think the publisher will care whether the copies were sold full price or discounted.

  5. Andromeda,

    You’re right, of course: it’s not all about royalties. Or even about how many books you’ve sold lately. It’s about writers connecting with readers and, perhaps, making a bit of a difference, and create some beauty in the process. You are touching upon the real issue here — more and more people wanting to be published writers and more and more succeeding, while reader numbers / time spent reading books stagnate(s) or drop(s). Even as an avid reader, it’s hard to keep track of new titles of interest. Someone figured out that if you read nutshell reviews of all the new books published annually in the U.S. alone, 364 days wouldn’t be enough to read these reviews.

    As far as “reviews” on Amazon go, I find them less than helpful; most are pure fan mail (many perhaps written by the author’s friends)with the occasional curmudgeonly piece thrown into the mix. They seem to reveal more about the reviewer’s biases and tastes (or what’s en vogue on bestseller lists) than literary merits. To a degree, that could be said about NYT Book Review writers as well. Unless you’re looking for a specific author or title, you’re unlikely to stumble upon an undiscovered gem. (The Amazon feature “readers who bought this book also bought these” usually provides more of the same — reinforcing already existing sales trends.)

    Online book clubs and blogs connecting like-minded readers (or at least readers of a similar intellectual bend) can be a much better guides to quality books than the large sellers and pseudo-review publications like “Bookmarks”.

    I don’t deny the easy access to writings that Google or Amazon provide. But sometimes too much “info” is just that. I read the advice somewhere that you should only speak if your words improve upon silence. The same could be said about writing. The white noise of words out there can be deafening. That the shelf life of books often approximates that of joghurt is a regrettable side effect of our attention deficit-culture.

    Michael E.

  6. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Well said, Michael. And it brings us back around to the blog issue as well: are blogs (including this one) just more white noise or a good survival strategy for those of us who may not being able to find each other as the noise increases all around us? No need to answer — I’m still trying to decide myself…

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