13 December 2005

Publish and Be Damned!

The wilful misunderstanding of Google Books by traditional publishers is truly sad to see. They continue to propagate the idea that Google is somehow going to make the entire text of their titles available, whereas in fact it simply wants to index that text, and make snippets available in its search results.

As a an author I welcome this; nothing makes me happier than see that a search for the phrase "digital code" at Google Books brings up my own title as the top hit. The fact that anyone can dip into the book can only increase sales (assuming the book is worth reading, at least). Yes, it might be possible for a gang of conspirators to obtain scans of the entire book if they had enough members and enough time to waste doing so. But somehow, I think it would be easier to buy the book.

Of course, what is really going on here is a battle for control - as is always the case with open technologies. The old-style publishers are fighting a losing battle against new technologies (and open content) by being as obstructive as possible. Instead, they should be spending their energies working out new business models that let them harness the Internet and search engines to make their books richer and more available to readers.

They are bound to lose: the Internet will continue to add information until it is "good enough" for any given use. This may take time, and the mechanisms for doing so still need some work (just look at Wikipedia), but the amount of useful information is only going in one direction. Traditional publishers will cling on to the few titles that offer something beyond this, but the general public will have learned to turn increasingly to online information that is freely available. More importantly, they will come to expect that free information will be there as a matter of course, and will unlearn the habit of buying expensive stuff printed on dead trees.

It is this dynamic that is driving all of the "opens" - open source, open access, open genomics. The availability of free stuff that slowly but inexorably gets better means that the paid stuff will always be superseded at some point. It happened with the human genome data, when the material made available by the public consortium matched that of Celera's subscription service, which ultimately became irrelevant. It is happening with open source, as GNU/Linux is being swapped in at every level, replacing expensive Unix and Microsoft Windows systems. And it will happen with open content.

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