Early last week I read a pretty interesting piece by George Dyson called Turing's Cathedral; it's a summary of a talk he gave during a visit to Google HQ last month. Most of the article went over my head, but the quote he used to close the piece really struck a chord:
"When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain." -- Simon Ings, Headlong (1999)
Now where this gets fun for me is that Dyson didn't fully attribute the quote - he just said "science fiction writer Simon Ings", but I wanted to know where it came from, so I found Simon's website and I emailed him to ask where the quote came from.
He quickly wrote back that it came from his book Headlong, which is now out of print. That prompted me to ask him what his thoughts were as an author on the whole Google
His reply, reprinted here with his permission, was exactly what I would've expected from an author, and this is the second author who's told me pretty much the same thing (the first was an academic writer):
Your note about the OOP status of Headlong prompts me to ask your opinion of the Google Print project, in which they're scanning copies of books both in and out of print w/o permission of publishers or authors. It would seem that it could do you no harm to have a copy of Headlong fully-searchable through Google (they say they'll not display the full text, but only a snippet around the found text), and in fact if enough people found out about your book that way it might even go back in print, which would be beneficial to you. But that's just my outsider's opinion; do you have one as an author?
And Simon replied,
An interesting question: are you involved in this debate? Your job title suggests this is your bread and butter -- or may become so.
A lot of writers -- and agents, incredibly -- are running so scared of services like GooglePrint, and I cannot for the life of me see why. My shelves are crammed full of books – fiction and non-fiction – which I found out about while using the Web for research. I don't use Google Print very much but I have recently used amazon.com's 'search inside' function, and this is the closest experience to actual browsing I've ever come across on-line.
And it was, quite frankly, a delight: for us in the UK at the moment, the bookshops are stocking fewer and fewer titles, so a good honest browse is becoming a rare pleasure. Yet isn't this how books get discovered and read?
For the past twenty years, the bookshops here have been relying on the same tired formula to shift units: the 'three for two' bargain. They have no innovation, no understanding of how readers find books, and no interest in any but the major sellers. (This calamitous tunnel-vision last year actually reduced the sales of major sellers by a staggering 15%!). I don't bother with bookshops any more. Nor do many of the writers I know.
I don't know the detail, but I like the cut of GooglePrint's jib, and I know that they've been consulting with the book industry and agencies over here to get the thing working without putting people's backs up.
And its nice to see innovative companies actually thinking about books – something bookshops haven't done in my lifetime. So I think we should be positively critical and make these services better where they need to be better.
The internet is, after all, where we go to find variety now – in music, books, and much else. Without an on-line presence, the midlist (which is to say, literature) is dead in the water.
and I replied, when asking for his permission to post our conversation,
Well I'm not officially involved in the debate in a way that will influence it, but yes, all librarians are pretty interested in what's going on. Google claims altruistic intentions, in that they "only want to make the world's knowledge available to all" and that they're "creating the world's largest card catalogue", and if that's true, then libraries will receive a pretty big gift because people will suddenly know what's in all those books we have. I personally don't think libraries have anything to fear from this initiative, but that's why your quote struck such a chord with me :-) . If Google has other intentions (well of course they're out to make money somehow), it may still be an overall win for libraries.
Your author's response is exactly what I would have expected, and what mine would be if I were an author. I too find the stance of the publishers and associations bewildering - it can only be a knee-jerk reaction to someone stepping on their turf. It's been shown in at least one instance that making full text of books available online actually increases print sales, and Amazon found this too.
Your notes about browsing (or not being able to) hit home for my distance students as well, who are currently unable to browse our book collection the way an on-campus student can. Google Print could really level this playing field in distance education as well. It'll be an interesting next few years for both our businesses.
Yeah, I guess there's the copyright question to be answered, but damn, it seems so obvious that this is good for authors, users, and libraries, and I don't see how it's harming the publishers either. Check out Sivacracy.net for the views of someone who's paying more attention to the legal side of this issue.
And finally, I just found this page linked off the Google Book Search page - interesting how much more marketing / spin Google is forced to do with this project compared to all their other products!