A book publisher's manifesto - Part VI (The End)

The marathon is almost over. Here's my final posting. Phew. Thanks for staying with me, for all the comments and the links. Great to have stirred up such a debate! Publishers have always spoken proudly of their role as custodians of copyright, preservers of culture, but how much have they really done to ensure the existence of a digital archive? This – along with developing the interconnections within and across archives of content from multiple publishers - would be a clear role for publishers to take, but has Google already stolen a march there, too? The publishing world awaits the outcome of Google’s legal battle with the Author’s Guild, but in a way, the bluster about Google’s generous interpretation of the fair use clause often only serves to cover up a sense of shame that it was not publishers who first chose to invest in the digitisation of our print archives and to develop the means to access them. Many historians and archivists and librarians are concerned about the possible impact on content quality of a mega-corporation focused in the main on expanding search, adding to its advertising revenue potential and providing ‘good enough’ information for the attention poor consumers of today. Robert B Townsend outlines some of the flaws in the content and the metadata provided via Google Book Search and asks: “…what's the rush? In Google's case the answer seems clear enough. Like any large corporation with a lot of excess cash the company seems bent on scooping up as much market share as possible, driving competition off the board, and increasing the number of people seeing (and clicking on) its highly lucrative ads or "renting" copies of the books. But I am not sure why the rest of us should share the company's sense of haste. Surely the libraries providing the content, and anyone else who cares about a rich digital environment, need to worry about the potential costs of creating a "universal library" that is filled with mistakes and an increasingly impenetrable smog of (mis)information. As historians we should ponder the costs to history if the real libraries take error-filled digital versions of particular books and bury the originals in a dark archive or the dumpster. And we should weigh the cost to historical thinking if the only substantive information one can glean from Google is precisely the kind of narrow facts and dates that earn history classes such a poor reputation. It is time, it seems, to think in a careful and systematic way about how this will affect our discipline, and the new modes of training and apparatus that will make it possible to negotiate the volume and flaws of the emerging digital landscape.” (Robert B Townsend, Google Books: Is it good for History?, Perspectives, September 2007). Whilst Google has led the drive to make book content ‘discoverable’ online, publishers have been slow to harness web techniques to promote and sell books, both in print and in digital formats. Many, many publishers are still nowhere near even managing the basics, of systematically creating and storing and ‘seeding’ sample chapters, excerpts, audio or video author interviews, schedules of author appearances, links to media coverage, featured material on social networking sites and rich bibliographic material.

Whether publishers will find a way to cohabit with Google and the other search engines, to ensure that their content is discoverable through search but on their terms, to regain the lead as specialists in the marketing and selling of books, of content, remains to be seen. Publishers certainly could have a role to play in trying to work with Google and the other search engines to ensure the highest standards of quality are upheld, that the metadata is accurate, that the future users of the digital archive will find more than simply ‘good enough’ information and will be able to plough a rich seam of digital marketing materials in support of authors and their books. Let’s hope that is possible for a moment. Whichever way it goes, in order for publishers to break their traditional boundaries and to develop into the publishing companies of tomorrow will require a step change in their form, culture and approach. Digital publishing strategies will need to move from defensive or protective to creative and liberal, with an emphasis on enabling readers to share and to change what they read. A move away from text-centricity and towards multimedia will no doubt be key and this has repercussions for the kinds of rights that publishers will need to negotiate as well as for the skills they will require of their staff. Publishers will need to view themselves as shapers and enablers rather than producers and distributors, to take a project rather than a product approach and to embrace their position as merely a component element in a reader, writer, publisher circularity. They will need to embrace new business models and they may even need to become media companies rather than publishing companies. They will need to understand and know and connect with their readers far, far better and they will need to develop brands that hold the highest kudos for authors and imply brand values to consumers that appeal to readers around identifiable niches. Ultimately they may need to ready themselves sooner rather than later for a fight to the death not only with their current partners in the distribution chain but also with non-traditional competitors who are rapidly devouring the space which has traditionally been reserved for them.