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'Free' book content

29 June 2009

'It's a colossal irony to have the guys and gals of Amazon, Google and their ilk lusting for free book "content" as premium material on which to stake their enlarged claims to commercial riches. For these clever mathematicians and engineers who are shaping the electronic business of our time and the archives of the future, these baby-faced young entrepreneurs, have risen to their mercantile eminence without encountering books, and don't think they need to.

I enjoyed the fatuous surprise of Google's Sergey Brin discovering that "There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site." Translating this backhanded recognition of value into his own debased lingo, he understands that books make for "viable information-retrieval systems," information being the only cultural signifier he recognizes, evidently. His company's amazing presumption that book people should simply hand over the keys to their priceless kingdom shows how completely he and his colleagues misunderstand what is at stake.

But these Internet people don't care. For billionaires like Brin, accessing the giant river of infinite book "content" onto which they can glue paid advertising is simply a giant new way to make more money, and they are single-minded about that. The giveaway is not only in their ignorance but in their reluctance to share the wealth. For its Look Inside program, Amazon demands that publishers give it, gratis, electronic files of the books, along with blurbs and cover art, arguing that in return the publishers will have increased sales. How might you prove or disprove that? (Publishers might recognize Amazon's argument, since it resembles the pathetically phoney one about composition costs that they themselves used against writers years ago.)

The (not yet settled) settlement between Google Book Search and the publishers who sued it for copyright infringement proposes to give a breathtakingly audacious near-monopoly to Google and mingy terms to writers. We publishers seem to have forgotten that Google's and Amazon's profit margins are triple or quintuple ours, and we haven't always checked our contracts with the authors.

It is a confused, confusing and very fluid situation, and no one can predict how books and readers will survive. Changed reading habits have already transformed and diminished them both. I, for one, don't trust the book trade to see us through this. Wariness is in order.'

Veteran American editor Elisabeth Sifton of Farrar, Straus & Giroux in The Nation