Digitizing Books, Again

October 18th, 2006 · No Comments
by Booksquare

Either or, either or, either…what is it about the world we live in that every move is giant step forward with the potential to surpass the leader with just a little more effort? Or is it just that journalists spend a little too much time reprinting press releases and not enough time thinking about the information contained in said releases? Microsoft is not stepping further into Google’s territory; they are just moving forward with an ongoing project.

Two technology giants — Google and Microsoft — are currently engaged in major book digitization efforts. While their approaches differ (slightly), they have similar goals. Yes, the desire to make information readily available is one. Making money is the other. All that lovely text will be used to propel advertising revenues. The side benefit will be increased book sales for those whose works are accessible to the seeking-and-finding search crowd.

(Though we are focused here on Google and Microsoft, do not forget that Amazon is lurking in the shadows, planning to make major moves in this arena as well.)

The Microsoft initiative has been moving slowly, but steadily, forward. Google has been moving full steam ahead. Microsoft is trying to avoid the legal battles being faced by Google. Google is citing increased book sales due to their initiative. Both companies are doing the publishing industry a huge favor.

The publishing industry has been remarkably precious about protecting copyright while acknowledging the importance of digitizing back catalog (we are making the rather bold assumption that most works published since at least the mid-nineties are already in digital format). While some publishers are moving forward, most are not. We understand: turning paper into bits and bytes is not a cheap undertaking. Even as Microsoft signs deals with scanning specialists, there is still considerable expense involved.

What publishers don’t seem to get is that Microsoft and Google want to bear this expense. They are willing to put up their own money to digitize books — and, no, they are not doing this out of the goodness of their little corporate hearts. They fully expect that the return on investment will be massive. In exchange for digitizing books, they will earn advertising dollars based on search results. They will also — mark our words — probably make money on alternate distribution methods (electronic books, print-on-demand) for books.

As publishers look at older titles, they’re going to be doing cost-benefit analyses, and many books are going to be found wanting. This is a basic fact of doing business. Titles with the potential to sell only a few to none copies aren’t likely to be digitized under publisher initiatives. Google and Microsoft, however, understand that having that one book in search results meets the needs of someone — because there’s always someone — out there in the world. What appears to be a loser for the publishing house becomes a winner when someone buys the book (or buys an excerpt of the book, as the case may be).

This only works if the book is readily available in a searchable format. If the text is behind an impenetrable digital curtain (or, worse, sitting gathering dust on a warehouse shelf), then nobody will find it, nobody will buy it, nobody will read it. Publishers know their business very well; and, as someone pointed out to us yesterday, Google knows search. Very well. It makes sense for publishers to work with experts in the field, no?

Publishers will, after all, require the services of the search giants even if they do choose to go the digitization route alone. No point in doing all the work if nobody can find it (and we must be cruel here: people don’t know who published this obscure work or that seminal piece). Search engine optimization is an entire industry, and it makes sense that publishers would partner with those who know what they’re doing. Sure beats litigation.

One important thing for publishers to remember will be that it’s all about the consumer (again, people who buy stuff). As they rethink their search giant strategy (and we believe they will), no exclusive deals with this company or that company. You don’t know whose search engine is preferred by the consumer seeking your product. Why limit your audience?

In the meantime, Microsoft is still unable to accept electronic versions of books. C’mon guys — it’s been nearly six months since you launched the project. Getting already-digitized product should be the easy part!

[tags]publishing, google, microsoft, books, digital books[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing