October 28, 2008

Google and the Author’s Guild establish an ASCAP for books

Most of the coverage of the Google/Authors Guild settlement today seems to focus on Google’s side of things. But I think the authors’ side is much more important. This deal paves the way for traditional publishers to become quaint and useless — and not a moment too soon.

Below are some quotes — fair use!! 🙂 — from the Authors Guild official statement on the deal (emphasis mine):

Our proposal to Google back in May 2006 was simple: while we don’t approve of your unauthorized scanning of our books and displaying snippets for profit, if you’re willing to do something far more ambitious and useful, and you’re willing to cut authors in for their fair share, then it would be our pleasure to work with you.

The payments will flow through the Book Rights Registry, a new independent entity that can be thought of as the writers’ equivalent of ASCAP. Much as ASCAP tracks the uses of songs and collects royalties for songwriters and musicians, the Registry will serve the interests of authors and others who own the rights to books appearing online as a result of this settlement. The Registry will be controlled by a board of authors and publishers; as part of the settlement, Google will pay $34.5 million to get the Registry up and running, notify rightsholders of the settlement, and process claims.

Readers are also big winners under the settlement of Authors Guild v. Google. Readers will be able to browse from their own computers an enormous collection of books. We hope this will encourage some readers to buy full online access to some of the books. Readers wanting to view books online in their entirety for free need only reacquaint themselves with their participating local public library: every public library building is entitled to a free, view-only license to the collection. College students working on term papers will be able to point their computers to resources other than Wikipedia, if they’re so inclined: students at subscribing institutions will be able to read and print out any books in the collection.

This is what writers have been — or at least should have been — awaiting for over a decade, ever since it became clear that the Web would transform media and publishing. With print-on-demand plus an online book registry, authors get complete access (starting in the US, at least) to readers, paying and otherwise.

So let’s review what publishers are good for. In some order, their role is:

It’s a publishing industry open secret that advertising and such like are pretty useless, doing more for the egos of all concerned than they do for actual book sales. Amazon is obsoleting most physical book stores, airport locations (for impulse purchases) and the like perhaps excepted.

As for branding/imprimatur: The backing of a major publisher can be worth a few thousand hard copy sales to libraries. But where else does it matter? I was going to suggest that it might in the academic world. But then I looked over at the math books on my shelves, a number of which are bound in familiar Springer Verlag yellow and white. Is there one book there I wouldn’t own if it weren’t a Springer Verlag publication? Probably not. I suspect that your initial reputation boost in academic publishing comes from your institution and peers much more than from an actual academic press.

So for the most part, book publishers and music publishers are left with just one marketing function — getting the ball rolling. Published products ultimately sell through word of mouth, but if you don’t start out with listeners or readers, how can the word of mouth build? The answer, of course, will increasingly be online promotion. If your natural audience is scattered around the country or the world, without being concentrated in one particular geographic location, online marketing is the obvious way to go. And in this world of search engines, YouTube, blogs, and the like, ever more channels for marketing are opening up.

Other than promotion and aggregation (the latter applying more to news/blog publishers than books/music), I do see one other role for publishers — actually creating product. Movies/TV and video games are both far bigger businesses than book publishing, and in both cases products are produced by large teams of people. Music is generally produced by small teams of people. And by the way, books can spin off from other kinds of entertainment (I suspect that a large fraction of all science fiction book sales at this point are Star Wars/Star Trek/etc.). Or vice-versa — some day the economic model for trying an ambitious new comic book project may factor in hoped-for movie and other spin-offs from the getgo.

But traditional publishers aren’t generally set up to do anything that ambitious. As for lesser but still important functions — editing, art direction, etc. — who needs large firms for that? The music industry seems to get by just fine with small recording studios and independent record producers; book producers could spring up just as well. Indeed, they exist already, but suffer from the problem that nobody wants to pay them much because book sales overall are so weak.

If I were a best-selling author, I’d hire away my favorite editor, put her on the payroll directly, and then send her and my agent to squeeze a few extra percentage points out of the big publishers, more than covering the cost of her paycheck. At least, I would if I were a best-selling author and also had my current personality. Now, I’m not, and if I were that kind of author I’d probably be quite fixated on being left alone to write, and might find it easier to leave money on the table than to take that kind of business responsibility myself. That kind of consideration is probably a big reason why traditional publishers are allowed to stay in business.

But the times sure are a’changin’.

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