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The internet's leading business is currently scanning and digitising millions of books. Dominance of the web is not enough, the search giant now plans to become, in essence, the world's biggest librarian and bookshop.

Now, regular readers of my posts and articles will know that I am usually onside with Google. It's frighteningly large and successful, but anything that invests so much time and energy into important projects like Google Earth is OK by me, except its plans for books...

For those who don't know, Google is aiming to make around 32m texts available online. Authors and publishing houses will be able to register their work and receive 70% of the sales and subscription income generated by them.

We are not just looking at a change in Google's revenue streams, we are not even just looking at a new major player in online book selling. What we are looking at is Google's total dominance of our literary heritage, and de facto copyright of everything.

The benefits

There are so many obvious benefits to be able to store and access literature online. This could be the biggest, most ambitious and most useful single project since the internet began.

It will almost certainly change lives; enabling access, aiding academia and freeing our literary heritage. One day, our grandchildren will be unable to believe that we once lived in a time when you couldn't access the original Canterbury Tales complete with Chaucer's personal notes from your phone.

Many books have been languishing out of print for years and this will change that. New generations will discover stories that have passed out of common memory.

The benefits of this project go far, far beyond commercial interests or convenience.

My concerns

Google's idea is brilliant and the search engine is probably the only business that would be able to get away with such a sweeping copyright decision, something we'll find out next month.

I do have some real concerns, however, which I know are shared by a number of other commentators and organisations.

Too important?

Is it not possible that something like this is simply too important to leave in the hands of a business? This is of historic importance to humankind and I believe should be an international project, ideally planned and controlled by governments, not directors and shareholders.

Google is immensely powerful and I am comfortable with that. I trust it not to distort the search results I have come to rely on, to showcase stories in Google News without political bias, and to photograph practically every street in the world and put the images online safely.

However, books are too important to risk this way. Admittedly, our literary heritage is already at the hands of commerce: many books have gone out of print because there was insufficient profit to made on them, and many authors have been exploited by unscrupulous publishing houses.

But if Google succeeds in this project then all these other commercial entities will die off, or adapt into very different organisations. I think it is likely that Google will end up without competition, sole guardian and key owner of our books.


My main concern is the power this would cede to Google, even if it does pay handsomely to settle the deal, but there are other issues too,

Online book retailers will suffer badly and it could well be the final blow for high street bookshops. I expect we'll see an upsurge in attractive covers and free gifts to counteract the appeal of online, downloadable texts, but I do not know if it will be enough.

Google will have a monopoly to end all monopolies. It is hard to see how Microsoft or anyone else could compete (in fact, Microsoft recently abandoned its own book scanning plan) (I'm not saying Microsoft is entirely innocent here).

The world's biggest search engine turned ten recently, amid much debate over whether or not it has become too powerful. Far from resting on its laurels, the business seems determined to drive new innovation in endlessly new areas and that should be admired. But books are too important for one company to control.

Kevin Gibbons

Published 7 September, 2009 by Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is UK Managing Director at digital marketing agency BlueGlass. He is also known as an SEO speaker and can be found on Twitter and Google+.

102 more posts from this author

Comments (4)


Graham Ruddick

The main point of this piece is that Google's power becomes a threat if online books become the accepted way of consuming that content. If it doesn't then the high street book store is a safe as it can be in the light of huge ecommerce or supermarket competition.

If online content does become an accepted/the standard channel for book content then there is a great deal more threat to offline products than Google. The rise of ereaders suggests to me that here needs to be new business models for the offline content providers - and they need to be quick. Book content appears to be moving online already.

However in this environment Google just becomes one of many publishers of new content. Existing content will be more interesting. Where the copyright has lapsed there will be a straight commercial decision about whether the costs of digitising content are warrented by that content's potential value. Google will be a powerful player of course, but the only one? I think not.

about 7 years ago


Veronica Hulea

Hello Kevin,

allow me to comment on various segments of your post:

too important to leave in the hands of a business?

Indeed it is a very important project controlled by directors and shareholders. But let's not forget that the governments cannot agree on and implement (at least for the moment)  a plan against greenhouse emissions which will put the whole planet in danger not only the humans hungry for information or shareholders hungry for money. The governments could have done this long ago if they were interested.but they were not.

In my opinion Google tries to provide the 'books long tail' by making available the books out of print and the current publications. As you mentioned, there are books out of print because they could not provide enough profit for having them published. What is the point of storing such a book in a library somewhere around the world with only a bunch of people fortunate enough to have access to it? Why not making it available to any person connected to Internet who is interested in it?

This project will change many online and off-line books selling models. But this is not first example where digital media determined a major structural shift to an industry. Just think of the music selling model in place 20 years ago.

This project must cost Google a lot of money now, but they are willing to pay knowing that this will change the rules of the game in the online books business and they will be on top. Maybe instead of thinking of scary scenarios with Google owning 'all the human knowledge' we should think what are the possible business models ready to emerge from such a project, how can people involved can prepare. The reason for such a suggestion is the following: Google needs people to read and pay for the information stored by them. If they behave completely un-etically they will suffer consequences.

about 7 years ago


Mitch from Ankara

If the entire literary content of human history were so g*d-d*amned important for governments and other "non-profit" entities, why didn't they do this before??

Surely it was not a business that put together the Internet, but to access it requires we buy a computer and a subscription--often outrageously priced---for Internet service.  Point:  access to knowledge and information is unfortunately not free or even inexpensive.

Let's look at another model of information distribution that should really have your nose bent out of shape:  scientists are given government grants---yes, paid for by taxpayers--to do research, and where do they report their findings of that publicly funded research??  Yes, to journals published by FOR-PROFIT-AND-HOW businesses such as Elsevier or Humana Press or the Nature Publishing Group.  Universities are going bankrupt (or writing out of the budget altogether) subscriptions to getting access to these journal articles which, again I emphasize, contain results and data which neither the reseacher nor the journal publisher paid for!!  Look at the per-article prices you have to pay if you want a "re-print."

You want to look it something (potentially or) actually scandalous:  look into that!!

Anyway, if Google claims no legal exclusitivity or publishing right just because it---on its own volition--decides to digitize everything going back to the papyruses of Rhamses, I see no problem with it being a go-between in moving for a small fee the work of an author to its reader.  Again, if that work of the author goes by a different road, Google rejects any claim to other roads of conveyance.

My appreciation to Google for doing what the Gutenberg Project thought about but doesn't have the resources to do.

about 7 years ago

Vincent Amari

Vincent Amari, Online Consultancy at Business Foresights Ltd

"too important to leave in the hands of a business?
... planned and controlled by governments, not directors and shareholders."

More important than other essentials like; Water, Electricity, Public Transport, etc ... ?

"Google will have a monopoly to end all monopolies."

How so? They are not buying exclusive copyright.
Any other business can still go ahead and compete with Google on this, just like many do on other products and services that are also offered by Google.

about 7 years ago

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