Google Woos Book Publishers

The publishing industry's top annual showcase and networking conference, Book Expo America (BEA), is a massive affair that brings together authors, publishers of all sizes, librarians, agents, distributors, and virtually everyone else connected in any way to the book publishing field. This year, Google made its first appearance, using last week's show in New York to publicize its new Google Print venture and to recruit publishers into the fold.

Google Print technically remains in beta, but the service went live in October and began accepting submissions. Google's goal is to extend its information-organizing ethos to the offline world by offering searchable copies of as many books as possible. The company's approach is two-pronged: A publishers' program solicits commercial books, while Google's Library Project is working with five major libraries to scan their collections and make portions of them available to Web surfers.

Google won't say how many staffers are devoted to the ambitious project, but Google Print Product Marketing Manager Jennifer Grant says she was initially surprised at the devotion Google's founders to the fledgling, and likely very expensive, service. "It really goes to the heart of what the company does: making the world's information available," she says.

Copyright Concerns

Digital copies of creative works are an intellectual-property-rights minefield, and Google has attracted protest from groups including the Association of American University Presses, which views the Library Project as a potentially massive bastion of copyright infringement.

Unsurprisingly, Google was eager to spread the word at BEA about its tactics for protecting intellectual property. For example, only tiny snippets--no more than a few lines--of Library Project books still in copyright will be revealed to Web surfers. Web searchers receive greater access to books submitted by publishers and can view several pages at a time of those, but Google's software blocks users from seeing more than 20 percent of any individual, copyright-protected work.

Google's booth drew steady traffic from publishers considering offering their books. Google's hook for publishers is that its service can be a marketing aid: Google Print hits turn up in the results displayed for searches at Google.com, potentially bringing relevant books to the attention of those who wouldn't otherwise discover them. Google also displays ads on its book-results pages and splits the revenue with the book's publisher.

Per Aspera Press Publisher Karawynn Long stopped by the booth to enroll several books from her Seattle small press, which focuses on speculative fiction. She considered the intellectual-property implications of making Per Aspera's books available through the service, but decided the exposure Google offers is worth any risks involved in giving potential readers an advance peek.

"For our type of book, literary fiction, I don't think there's much in the way of cons," Long says. "I can see it being different for other types of books--cookbooks, for example."

Long's business partner, Per Aspera Press Managing Editor Jak Koke, says he views the service as especially advantageous for small publishers without lavish marketing budgets, since their books will show up just as prominently in Google's results as mass-market offerings.

Koke and Long are enthusiastic about the potential of Google Print to publicize their latest book, "Singularity," a novel that offers a fictional interpretation of a mysterious early 20th-century aerial explosion now referred to as the "Tunguska Event." That phrase is likely to be entered into Google.com by searchers looking for information on the event--the ideal audience for "Singularity," according to Long.

Not Convinced

But not all of the publishers stopping by Google's booth were won over. Paul Krupin, a Kennewick, Washington-based publisher and writer of business books, says he won't be enrolling his books in the service.

"A lot of authors are uncomfortable with it," Krupin says. "If people are seeing the actual content, they may not make the same buying decision. All of us are up in the air about how much you can give to the public before it hurts you."

Krupin plans to wait for more data on Google Print's pros and cons. The service could be useful as a marketing tool, Krupin says, but he's uncomfortable with surrendering so much control over how browsers view the books he publishes. "The content slice, the first thing [searchers] see, can color their decisions," he says. "Nobody has really proven harm in this market, but there's potential for it."

Google wasn't the first to hit on the idea of making printed books available online. Amazon.com launched its "search inside" feature in 2003, and now claims to offer hundreds of thousands of books. Google's Grant acknowledged that Amazon.com paved the way by starting the conversation with publishers about how to handle intellectual property issues; Google encourages publishers to use the same format for submitting electronic copies of their works to Google as for Amazon.com submissions. Meanwhile, Project Gutenberg began electronically archiving public-domain works way back in 1971.

Still, by making a wide range of modern scanned books available not just to online bookstore shoppers but to the entire Web-searching population, Google's Print initiative is the most ambitious project of its kind yet attempted. If it's successful, future Web surfers will be able to retrieve excerpts of best sellers like "The Da Vinci Code" through Google.com, along with copies of 1924's "True Stories of Pioneer Life" from the Bangor Public Library in Maine.

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