Gosh, it seems like a year since we sat in a room and listened as a representative of Microsoft outlined the company’s ambitious plans for its book search project. In reality, it’s been closer to nine months. Which would make it six months since the company wooed authors and publishers at BookExpo America. “Come to us, and let us scan your books,” they said.
Before we get into the point of this post, we want to dwell for a moment on this concept of scanning books. Unless policy has changed very recently, scanning is indeed how Microsoft is getting published works into its database. Even if your work is already in electronic format. It’s an overly labor-intensive process that we don’t fully comprehend, and the MS team couldn’t explain to us.
So Microsoft Live Book Search is pretty much just like Google’s Book Search feature (it’s neat, the way the two companies have pretty much the same, very descriptive, name for their, well, book search features). This means that as far as technological advances go, it’s nothing new. That’s fine. Step one really is to the get content in searchable format. Google has already given us a preview of step two as they roll out the ability to purchase some or all of certain books.
The key difference between the two programs is that Microsoft is working exclusively on the opt-in system, with natural exceptions for public domain works. Google is taking the opt-out approach. Both methods have their strengths and weaknesses — since we’ve discussed those to death already, no point in going there.
Google’s Book Search program is already showing benefits — at least based on anecdotal evidence. We can’t say it enough: having your words in a place where people can find them is a benefit. As Microsoft integrates its program with its search results, similar results will accrue for those who use the MS search engine.
So here’s our problem: there is no benefit if the works are exclusive to one search provider over another. You, dear consumer, do not know that Microsoft has Book A while Google has Book B whereas Yahoo! has Book C and some other search engine has Books P and Q. Consumers choose their search engines based on a lot of criteria, some of which, if you get to the root of it, makes no sense at all. It is not our lot to question the behavior of consumers.
Publishers and authors, therefore, need to make it a point to cast the widest net possible. Put another way, they must resist the urge to enter into “exclusive” deals — said deals ultimately being the way to carve out potential readers right away. The same goes for libraries. It is our understanding that the deals being struck by Microsoft and Google for their library projects are non-exclusive. This is a really good thing. The two companies will make their money in other ways — exclusive content would be the wrong approach.
While we’re sure you’re going to want to start testing the new Microsoft product right away, we, uh, don’t know how to access it. The obvious routes failed us. The less-obvious failed as well. And, well, you know the story. If you figure it out, let us know. We are very interested in this project.