Oh, Google, how you bewilder me...
Despite loving the dream of a global digital library with access for all, I've been pretty vocal in my opposition to the Google Book Settlement. That's probably because the GBS doesn't create that dream and in my opinion it also isn't a Gutenberg moment - though try as I might, I'm not even close to understanding the full implications of the three hundred page titan of legalese which is the ASA. I struggle to keep up with the redoubtable and splendid Gill Spraggs and the lucid and learned James Grimmelmann, without whom we would all be eaten by bears...
The GBS just seems to me an utterly inappropriate step at this moment, and I'm very disappointed by the lack of engagement from almost all of our MPs. The one bright spot in the UK election for me (my vote was for the party which rather crashed and burned) is the hope that I can nobble someone in the new administration and get them to look seriously at the situation. In fact, if you're reading: hey! This is non-trivial! You really will wish you'd paid attention later...
That said, I'm very much intrigued by Google Editions.
It seems like an interesting and powerful way to go about doing digital books. But it's not a magic bullet. The books will apparently be held in the cloud but they will also be available offline. That means they're not only in the cloud, they're also on your device - so to all those publishers who were getting excited about the implied security, a moment of caution: there are already tools for downloading Google books and making them into .pdf files. As far as I can see, the same issues apply to cloud ebooks as to any other ebook. It could even work out that Google Editions books will actually be a weakness in protection systems. As Gizmondo points out, in-browser reading sounds more like an awesome extra than a full-on model by itself. So it may be that this is Google's unique hook to a more conventional ebook store (which is a ludicrous thing to say, given that there are no proper conventions yet, but you see what I mean: this may be less a revolution and more a third player at an increasingly familiar poker table.)
On the other hand, by making a huge number of titles available on demand through a legitimate supply chain, there's no question Google will be doing what I think is vital: getting people in the habit of looking for legitimate sources for downloads. So, yay! Go Google.
At the other end of the line...
The fine print of the Google setup, of course, kicks us right back to the issue of ebook prices and shares of revenue, and from my perspective it seems that we're going to need a much more flexible and innovative approach to ebook deals than is currently on the table from most publishing houses - with apologies to those who are making more interesting deals. Having come (home) to this industry after a long time elsewhere, and talking to people around the place now, it seems to me that there's a natural but ultimately unwise move to pass the tightening of the belt down the line to writers rather than try to hold the line against powerful retail chains and online sellers who want deep discounts. It's obviously easier to do that, but it isn't as far as I can see a solution to the problem. Apart from anything else, I doubt that it saves enough money to preserve the business-as-usual model, and it potentially pushes writers to examine new options, such as direct deals with Amazon and other distributors. If ebooks achieve liftoff, and it seems that everyone's putting a great deal of effort into making that happen, the mathematics of the situation are brutally obvious.
Assume a generous conventional publishing deal with a 25% ebook royalty, and sales of 1000 on a price of £10 -
.25 x 10 x 1000 = £2500
Contrast with the 70/30 split -
.70 x 10 x 1000 = £7000
which means the author only has to sell 350 copies of the ebook for the deal to be more profitable than the conventional one is at 1000 copies. Yes, I know, publishing a book and making a book available are two very, very different things. It's not a straight comparison. All the same, it's not irrelevant either.
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