There's a new Rumpelstiltskin in town, but he's not going after the miller's daughter. This Rumpelstiltskin has set his sights on authors, who, according to critics, may unwittingly spin him buckets full of gold. Judging from the panic issuing from home offices and cafes across the country, you'd think he was trying to steal our firstborn.
Maggie Shiels of the BBC writes today about the late but noisy outcry from Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon, who protest the settlement on the grounds that it constitutes a monopoly on digitization of books. The naysayers in the Internet industry have a point, not to mention an enormous stake in the matter. But coming purely from an author's perspective, I feel quite a bit less alarmed than some of my colleagues.
I'm of a mind to believe that the settlement may actually be advantageous for authors. For one thing, we write books in the hopes that they will be read. My first book, a story collection, had a very small print run. There are only six copies available from Amazon sellers, half of them priced at well over fifty bucks. Which is to say that it is very unlikely anyone will buy them. If they do, I won't see a penny. Authors only get royalties on first sales, not on subsequent sales of used copies of our books online or in bookstores. And yet, it's always pleasant to find a used copy of one of my books in a store, and to know it stands a chance of making it into the hands of a thoughtful reader. Google Books increases that opportunity for many millions of out-of-print or hard-to-find books.
Since my first book hit (and quickly disappeared from) the shelves, I've published three more novels, two of which had fairly large print runs and are widely available. While I would hate for anyone to read large portions of these novels online, thereby negating the desire to buy them or check them out of the library, I like the idea that the books can be sampled.
I perused both of these novels on Google Books. You can read them in five-page chunks, after which two pages are blacked out. That is, you can read pages 1-5, 8-12, 15-20, etc. While it's entirely possible that the books may be improved by brevity, I can't really imagine a reader enjoying such a Swiss cheese approach to novels. My feeling is that greater access leads to greater sales. As a reader, I'm far more likely to buy a book based upon reading a few pages than upon a review or word-of-mouth. Just like a car, or a pair of shoes, or an album, I like to try before I buy. For me, sampling vastly increases the chance of purchase.
Then again, I'm a book buyer at heart. I love supporting writers with my wallet, and I love owning physical copies of books. I'm not sure what Google Books means when paired with the freebie mentality. My concern would be that Google Books may work in some way as a portal to bigger, more insidious practices that we haven't yet quite envisioned--the worse case scenario being that the book industry goes the way of the music industry, wherein the only way to make money is to go on tour. We all know that author tours generally cost a great deal more money than they make. It's very hard to sell enough books at a reading (at royalties of between eight and 15 percent of the purchase price) to pay for a plane ticket and a hotel room. After all, we don't do light shows, and most of us can't rock a pair of hot pants or swing from a pole.
My understanding is that there is one thing the author gives up by opting in to the settlement: the right to sue Google over its digital use of your books. Aside from that, under the terms of the settlement, the author retains every right he or she could conceivably want. At any moment you may ask Google to remove your books from the search engine. You may also negotiate a different royalty rate, and you retain the right to stop your publisher from making any in-print book that you have written available through Google Books in any way whatsoever. You can change your mind--i.e., you can decide at any time that you don't want Google to display any of your books.
So if you think you might become litigious in the future, by all means, opt out. (I only know one or two authors who might even dream of having the pockets to sue Google, but there could be a class-action suit in the future, I suppose.)If your main objection to Google Books, on the other hand, is the possible loss of control over your works, my understanding is that you can opt in and still maintain full control of your copyright as pertains to the digitization of your books by Google. At any moment, you can just say no.
There's a wee bit of money involved, but not enough, at the outset, to be a determining factor unless you're truly a starving artist. Each author will get anywhere from $60 to $300 per book that was scanned by Google without authorization. That's enough to buy a few reams of paper or a nice bottle of Scotch, but not much else. In the future, authors will share with publishers 67% of the profits gleaned from digitization of their books, with 33% going to Google (therein the spun gold). Profits will presumably come from ads listed beside any page of a book, as well as from purchases of digital copies of the book--if the author chooses to allow this type of purchase. Ultimately, this could turn out to be a lot of money, but again, it's too early to tell.
That's really not so scary, is it? Of course, Rumpelstiltskin didn't appear scary either, when he first appeared to the miller's daughter, offering to help her spin gold for the king. It wasn't until later that he showed his true colors, and tried to make off with her baby.