An online discussion forum that includes publishers and librarians and tech people usually sends me several emails a day. About 10 days ago, a conversation evolved about Google Book Search and the Google Library Project, two initiatives by the search giant that were initiated in the early part of the last decade.
Because both programs essentially gave Google a trove of book-published content for full text search, there was a wariness among the publishing community about them when they started. In time, publishers (through the AAP) sued Google and the course of the lawsuit ultimately led to a sharp curtailment of Google’s ability to just do the scanning. After a while, it appears the reservoir of interest at Google for the project, which started as more of a “service to humanity” idea than a profitable one, just evaporated. The scans that Google had already done became part of the HathiTrust repository of content, an important research and scholarship tool in the non-trade world without any recognition or impact on the trade world at all.
What was lost in the publishers’ lawsuit and its ultimate disposition was something called the Book Rights Registry, which Google was going to fund and which would have been the authoritative source for determining copyright control of book content. A big issue for publishing remains how to handle “orphan” works: books for which the true current copyright owner either can’t be found or can’t be definitively determined. These books are effectively in “limbo” which makes it risky for anybody to publish them. Their “orphan” status means their commercial value is ambiguous. (And even when publishers are clear that they “own” the rights, it isn’t always clear what rights they own! Or, while they may unambiguously own the rights, they can be stumped because no specific ebook royalty has been stipulated.) But with the solution Google had in mind, the intellectual value of books whose copyright control was ambiguous could still be realized. Not now.
And, of course, Google is the single most powerful source of “discovery” and many in publishing wonder if books overall would have benefited from Google being more “knowledgeable” about what is inside of them.
So, to this day, years after the litigation and the scanning program have concluded, there is a division of opinion in the publishing community. Some see Google as a bully and a villain, trying to make its own rules to benefit from publishers’ content and crippling the value of copyright. Others focus on the lost opportunity and believe publishers would actually have more valuable intellectual property (more valuable copyrights!) today if they’d just allowed the Google programs to develop and flourish.
The email-list discussion was not conclusive on an important point. Everybody agreed that Google ultimately lost interest in the program. The question was whether that was all Google’s fault, or inherent to Google’s nature, or whether it was because the publishers made what was a labor of passion — getting all the knowledge in books indexed and accessible — for Google’s top management just more trouble than it was worth.
In the course of the discussion, a very knowledgeable and experienced veteran of publishing across education, professional, and trade offered the comment that “Google is a terrible partner.” I asked him (offline from the group discussion; he’s a friend) to amplify that.
My points of context for Google weren’t in publishing; they were in tech. My own most extensive experiences with the big three tech companies that publishers dealt with — Amazon, Apple, and Google — was working out their participation at publishing conferences, which I did a lot of between 2005 and 2015. At that time, Facebook was largely nascent (not as important to publishing, although it surely would be now) and Microsoft a bit past its dominance.
What I saw was that Apple was the most uptight; it was hard to get speakers because messaging was so tightly controlled by upper management.
Amazon would sometimes be very agreeable, but primarily when they had an agenda: some program they wanted to get across or some point they wanted to make. So they were often cooperative, but very much on their terms to put across their message du jour. In general, they wouldn’t do panels or Q&As. They needed to control the conversation and skillfully avoided being pushed to publicly discuss anything they didn’t want to talk about. But they were often available and always interesting, and unlike Apple (in my experience), would engage with you honestly about their agenda. (A senior Amazon executive once complimented me as somebody who “understands a company operating in its own self-interest.” I told him “I get suspicious if they don’t.”)
Google was, in my experience, by far the most open and accessible of the three companies. You could tell them you wanted speakers or panelists to cover one subject or another and you’d get directed to people who could help you. And Google employed a pretty fair number of ex-publishing people who were conversant about issues from a perspective that publishers could relate to.
Of course, that was the view only from the perspective of a conference organizer recruiting speakers.
What my friend said in response to my inquiry, in which I had only mentioned Google, was, “Google, Apple, and Amazon are all bad partners. Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Firebrand are good partners.”
So much for my contextual frame.
But grouping the three to me made the point that my context was what mattered. Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Firebrand all make their living in the book business. Google, Apple, and Amazon have a financial stake in the book business that amounts to a small rounding error to their overall financial performance.
When David Young was running Hachette USA in the last decade he made a very telling point that this all recalls. He had been running publishing companies in the US and UK for three decades. He said he was always able to get the CEO from his largest accounts on the phone if he had an issue of major magnitude. Now Amazon had been become his largest account and that was not the case.
For the entire life of the book business until about fifteen minutes ago, it was very much a free-standing industry. The only larger-than-the-industry enterprises it had to deal with were the Post Office and United Parcel Service. Our authors, designers, typesetters, printers, and, most important of all, customers to which we shipped directly (the wholesalers and retailers and libraries) were part of the publishers’ world. They depended on the publishers as much as the publishers depended on them.
Amazon was the first piece of evidence — and still the most important piece of evidence — that the old world has disappeared. (Some relevant ruminations on this point from six years ago.) They sell more than half of the books for most publishers, but all the books they sell probably amount to less than 5 percent of their total margin. And while Penguin Random House may be in the neighborhood of half the consumer book sales overall, they wouldn’t amount to nearly that big a percentage of Amazon’s book sales because Amazon gets a disproportionate share of professional and other niche markets and thus from publishers who don’t compete at all with PRH in the consumer market.
And because Amazon has very intentionally created a whole massive pool of consumer books that nobody else has, through their own publishing and enabling independent authors.
Of course, the book business occupies the same relative lack of importance to Apple and Google, and would to Facebook or Microsoft or Instagram or any other tech company.
All of which leads me to two conclusions.
One is that when a tech company like Google offers the book business what appears to be an opportunity, the industry needs to take seriously the notion that the opportunity may be fleeting. They don’t need us. In retrospect, it seems like publishers thought that their content was more valuable to Google than it actually was and that their position to dictate the terms by which the content would be made available was much stronger than it actually was.
And the other is that it just might be that Google, Apple, and Amazon are good partners when they’re dealing with entities that have more relative importance to them than each of us in publishing does. Publishers individually and collectively have existential importance to Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Firebrand. Publishers are their raison d’etre. Publishers will never get the level of engagement and bandwidth from the tech giants than they will with the industry-focused companies in our vertical. And they shouldn’t expect it.