The Secret Life of Digital Books

June 23rd, 2006 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

So, yeah, it’s 2006, and the Association of American University Presses (c’mon, you’ve heard of them) got together to talk about “Transforming Publishing”. It turns out this digital future thing is now and university presses need to get on board. Shouldn’t they have had this conversation back in, oh, 1996?

But let’s let bygones be whatever and focus on the fact that university presses are facing unique challenges: large collections, low volume sales, and lack of infrastructure. It is our opinion that the universities would be wise to take advantage of the deep corporate pockets on the pants of Google and Microsoft. Please note our use of the word “and”. There will be a quiz later.

Speaking at Friday’s opening session, he [Stephen Rhind-Tutt] said, “The mission must be getting more material to scholars faster,” and he encouraged his audience to coopt, rather than fight, digitizing efforts by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft by creating their own programs and providing added value through “licensing and linking.” Rhind-Tutt pulled no punches on this score: “You’ll be shut out of the future if you don’t license,” he said.

Over at HarperCollins, Jane Friedman is already stepping into the future. Her particular entity has fairly deep pockets, and her group is laying out the cash necessary to digitize their back catalog:

When Google announced in December 2004 that it would begin digitising publishers’ books, HarperCollins responded by deciding to put its book directory on to its own digital files. By next year, Friedman aims to have digitised 20,000 books, stretching back to the 1920s.

HarperCollins, by the way, is the only major publisher doing this. The only one. Unless an announcement comes down the pike from another house later this morning. We’re not seeing that as likely, and sit here wondering what in the world these people are thinking. They oppose Google on one hand, yet do nothing to monetize their biggest assets. Friedman, by the way, opposes Google, and is doing something to monetize her back catalog.

The very fact that Friedman is looking to digitize works going back to the 1920s indicates that she’s taking the Long Tail theory seriously.

“Before the internet, if you wanted to find people who collect mushrooms, you would have to do a tremendous amount of research to find the different societies,” she says

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“Before the internet, if you wanted to find people who collect mushrooms, you would have to do a tremendous amount of research to find the different societies,” she says.

“Now you can google ‘mushrooms’ and get it at your fingertips, and you can get to those people and sell The Complete Book of Mushrooms, which was published 25 years ago.”

Yes, you read that right: the Australian IT press has officially added “google” to their list of verbs. You know the old saying, “As goes Australia, goes the rest of the world.” We realize that not every single book ever published has eternal sales potential. We even realize that not every single book has eternal research potential. The number of books that do will finance those that don’t…because you never know when that mushroom guide is going to become a classic text.

[tags]jane friedman, harpercollins, university presses, google, microsoft, digital books, publishing[/tags]

File Under: The Future of Publishing

2 responses so far ↓

  • Maxine // Jun 23, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Macmillan is doing this (scanning), has been for some time, but maybe as a UK publisher you don’t count them. See CEO Richard Charkin’s blog (CharkBlog).
    Of course, neither Macmillan nor Harper Collins is a university press 😉

  • Booksquare // Jun 23, 2006 at 8:38 pm

    I somehow missed that Macmillan is doing this. Thanks for letting me know. I do, of course, count all major publishers, even if their English is dodgy ;-).