Mandy Garner observes the flurry and potential fallout stirred up by Google's e-tail aspirations
November has seen the trusty tugboat of academic publishing buffeted by a tidal surge of online book schemes. For some, announcements by Amazon, Microsoft, Random House and Google that they are to make sections of books accessible online are nothing short of the end of publishing as we know it. For others, such as many academic publishers, it is a chance to reach a wider audience.
Some academics, however, fear it will lead to more dumbing down because students will simply download chapters and paste relevant passages into their essays.
The announcements follow Google Print for Libraries' controversial decision to scan the content of university library books without seeking permission from publishers for material still in copyright, arguing that publishers have to opt out of, rather than in to, the scheme.
This month Amazon released details of its Amazon Pages programme, to be launched next year, which will allow readers to buy both chapters and entire books online. This builds on its existing "Search inside the book"
facility. Unlike Google Print, Amazon says it will ensure that copyright is protected and will also allow publishers and copyright holders to set the charge.
A week later Microsoft said it was joining web search engine Yahoo! in a consortium, the Open Content Alliance ( www.opencontentalliance.org ), that plans to scan millions of public domain books from university libraries and other archives. The alliance includes some universities.
Microsoft also announced MSN Book Search, due to start next year, which will allow readers to find content from books, academic materials, journals and other print resources. And last week The Wall Street Journal reported that Google had approached a publisher about renting out online copies of books for a week at a charge of 10 per cent of the book's list price.
Publishers are rushing to respond to the plethora of schemes to ensure they do not miss the latest dot-com boat.
Oxford University Press is involved with Google and has its own subscriber-only cross-searchable database of, to date, 1,000 titles ( www.oxfordscholarship.com ).
Random House has gone a step further and is setting up a pay-per-page e-book scheme that authors can opt out of. Web providers will have to pay the company four cents a page for fiction and narrative non-fiction; access will be negotiated on an individual basis. Richard Sarnoff, president of corporate development, says the company felt it was better to take control of content provision rather than "reacting to business models proposed to our industry by e-tail, search engine or software companies".
Meanwhile, in October the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which owns Macmillan, launched plans for an online repository for digital book content in an effort to control web access. Jayne Marks, chief executive of global operations at MPS Technologies (a division of Macmillan), says search engines could look at files on the repository, but Macmillan would have control of copyright and security.
She adds that academic books lend themselves to digitising more than other books and that publishers have to be "realistic" about the fast-changing market.
"We are talking with a range of publishers and other digital providers, and are looking to bring as many parts of the industry together to come up with protocols and so on. You can't be an island on the web. We have to work together," she says.
The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers welcomes such collaboration and is hopeful that the Google Print situation can be resolved. The association and others recently met with Google and all agreed that European law - unlike US law, where publishers have taken out a legal case against Google - was clear that the search engine could not copy books without first obtaining copyright permission.
"We are working with them to enable them to get that permission in a practical way," says Sally Morris, the association's chief executive. She thinks proposals to allow online access to sections of books is "a natural extension of what has been happening in journal publishing", but adds that it would be interesting to find out how much people are willing to pay for such excerpts. "A one-price-fits-all policy won't fit. Chapters from expensive books cannot cost the same as those from other books."
Morris also believes that the ability to sell smaller parts of books online will lead to greater experimentation. "It lends itself to the way people work in universities. Teaching and learning is becoming more about putting together pieces of this and that rather than ploughing through a single course book." She adds that publishers such as Pearson already allow people to "custom-build their own books" by putting together a chapter here and a journal article there.
Not all academics agree with such views. June Purvis, professor of women's and gender history at Portsmouth University, says: "Selling a chapter or section of a book is symptomatic of our soundbite culture; a little bit of this, a little bit of that."
David Cesarani, research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, is "ambivalent" about online developments. "From an academic teaching perspective, in some ways it is no different from setting pages from a book for class reading or photocopying segments of a book for students. But there are crucial differences.
"In the scenario proposed by Amazon, there will be no course tutor to provide a context for the selected bits. Who will make the selections and on what criteria? The result could be dumbing down rather than broadening the readership."
Rob Singh, a politics lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, adds that much depends on how universities approach internet development. "If courses are developed with an exclusive menu of online sources, the impact could be substantial,' he says.
Although many authors welcome the possibility of reaching more readers through web search engines and other providers, they are dubious as to whether this will generate more sales. Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, says: "Amazon claims it is like browsing in a bookshop, but you can't copy or cut and paste in bookshops. They claim you cannot download the page, but this has to be taken on trust. They also claim that it will promote sales and that they have the statistics to prove it, but we doubt their validity because they have been promoting the books for which they have a search facility."
Responses to the society's survey of major publishers about online developments have been polarised. There are textbook publishers who remain "very cautious" and academic publishers "who have embraced Google Print and feel it will give them greater exposure," says Le Fanu. He adds that authors need to be involved in any discussions about developments.
Anne Hogben, assistant general secretary of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, says academic authors are "already heavily exploited by publishers" who benefit from academics' need to publish for career advancement. "They often get bad deals and sign away their rights, so they are not in a strong position."
She adds that, in the case of e-publishing, technically books will never be out of print so writers could sign away their rights for ever. She also believes that, as with the music industry, online access will lead to more emphasis being placed on live performances such as talks at literary festivals. "It's difficult now to be a writer who wants to be private," she says. "It's all about celebrity, getting your name around."
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