Google Editions: Reviewing Google’s Cloud Vision for Books

It’s been almost two years since Google announced the “landmark settlement” that would give it the legal freedom to expand the possibilities of what it could do with books online. Now, in 2010, it seems like Google is starting to receive accolades for its oft-proclaimed visions for the future of the book – at least from some entities in the publishing industry. Reports emerging from Frankfurt Book Fair 2010 seem to indicate that Google’s vision for the future of books is now being met with eagerness and a reinforcing support from publishing professionals.
Commenting on Google’s presence at the fair, Andrew Albanese of Publishers Weekly (7 October 2010) presented very concise reportage of the ebb and flow that has hereto marked Google’s entrance into the e-book fray, including a mention of Roland Reuss‘ outburst in 2009 that Google was “fetishizing access”.
Let’s (re)consider the historic Google Book Search settlement that could be interpreted as a foundational stage for Google’s later developments in relation to digital books.
The Google Book Search Settlement
It took two years of negotiations (prior to 2008) for a “copyright accord” to be established between Google, the Authors Guild, and the Association of American Publishers. On 28 October 2008, Google announced a settlement which effectively resolved a class action brought by the Authors Guild against Google and a further lawsuit against Google filed by certain members of the Association of American publishers (McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., Pearson Education, Inc., Penguin Group (USA) Inc., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and Simon & Schuster, Inc.). The two lawsuits sought to “challenge Google’s plan to digitise, search and show snippets of in-copyright books and to share digital copies with libraries without the explicit permission of the copyright owner”. Keep in mind these lawsuits were filled in 2005.
The initial settlement in 2008 sought to provide:
More access to to out-of-print books, including allowing readers in the U.S. to search and preview them online;
Additional avenues by which copyrighted books could be purchased
A means for U.S. colleges to obtain institutional subscriptions to books online enabling access to world renowned libraries;
Free full-text access to out of print books by certain computers in U.S. libraries; and
Distribution of payments “earned from online access provided by Google and, prospectively, from similar programs that may be established by other providers, through a newly created independent, not-for-profit- Book Rights Registry”.
Five years later and lot has changed, not just in the status of Google Book Search, but in the status and stature of e-books and the sale of these products by major online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. While the legal underpinning of Google Books are still being ironed out, with the Court granting preliminary approval of an amended settlement agreement on 19 November 2009, there appears to be a little less to iron out (at present), in terms of the technological infrastructure of Google Editions. The program will allow consumers to view books via their browser as they currently do with Google Books; however, in addition to this, they will have the option to purchase a Google version of the book, a Google Edition. The difference between Google Edition e-books and other e-books currently for sale is that rather then being stored on the consumer’s hard drive, Google Editions will use cloud-based technology. That is, they will be stored on an “online bookshelf, available to be accessed and read on most devices with internet access and a web browser”. The Google Editions start up page already provides information for rightsholders about how to take part in the Google Edition program.
Albanese notes that while Google’s book proposals originally attracted some scepticism, the pivotal factor which has changed the tide of professional opinion has been time. He also credits “Google’s cloud-based vision … would seem to move toward the e-book world a step closer to a device-agnostic market that could sweep in an even broader number of customers”. Could it be an inevitable conclusion, that just as Google’s self-titled search engine fundamentally changed – and continues to change – the way we use the internet, so too could Google’s particular take on e-books? Google has had a strong-hold in the e-book “market” before there was a market to speak of. The e-book market is now a thriving hub of activity and innovation. While the Google Book Search settlement reveals just a small snap shot of Google’s vision for digital books, it nonetheless delineates what I perceive to be a turning point which propelled Google on a trajectory which may make it the cornerstone of the e-book industry.

Kindle Singles: Re-Designing the Forms of Publishing

Volumes, Novels, Chapters and paragraphs. Word count plays an important role in dictating the form that a work of writing will take. Whether it be a magazine feature story, an op-ed piece or the foreword to a classic novel, word count enables publishers to identify, define and assign meaning to a mass of words, giving it structure and allowing it to take shape as a recognisable body of writing. Word counts matter for Amazon too. The company recently announced its intention to release “Kindle Singles”, a new publication structure for a body of writing containing between 10,000 to 30,000 words. According to Amazon, this word count range is the “perfect, natural length to lay out a single killer idea [that is] well researched, well argued and well illustrated – whether it’s a business lesson, a political point of view, a scientific argument, or a beautifully crafted essay on a current event”.
By announcing Kindle Singles, Amazon has not only created a new publication structure, but a legitimate mode of distribution. As a strategy for distribution, Kindle Singles offers the kind of versatility and sale benefits that the sale of single musical tracks offered iTunes. Digitisation is not only about data compression and the creation of ever-smaller file formats. Digitisation also translates into greater opportunities for distribution and consumption. The fact that Amazon may envisage its new e-publication structure and distribution method to be somewhat akin to what single tracks are to iTunes may be evinced from the fact that the Kindle Single:
Will have its own designated section in the Kindle Store; and
Will be “priced much less than a typical book”.
By giving Kindle Singles a distinguished space in the Kindle Store and by passing on appealing prices to consumers, it is certainly possible that Amazon may be generating a new kind for publication structure that will be have influence beyond Amazon. Not only is it foreseeable that such a structure could attract larger audiences and ensure greater sales for Amazon, it is also possible that the notion of the “Single” could become a main player in the e-publication market at large. In the same way that iTunes was able to dictate the direction of musical charts through the sale of singles, so too may Kindle Single contribute to the thoughts, ideas and commentaries which pervade popular culture, as well as best-seller lists.
Amazon’s announcement of Kindle Singles is an interesting proposal for the future of the written word. Kindle Content Vice President Russ Grandinetti comments that Kindle Singles will enable writers to present their ideas “crafted to their natural length, not to artificial length that justifies a particular price or a certain format”. It will be very interesting to see how popular these crafted words without conditions will be with consumers. Not only has Amazon potentially carved out a new share of the e-publication market with the launch of Kindle Singles, it is also creating new notions of writing structures and formats and the way ideas are disseminated by the written word.

The Future of the Book According to IDEO

Design firm IDEO has released its vision for the future of the book.  The concepts shown by IDEO are premised on the idea that “an increasingly digital context can add to our notion of books, instead of taking away from it”. Their video seeks to show us how these concepts can be brought to life and introduces three concepts that could make it happen: Nelson, Coupland and Alice.

Each new concept presented by IDEO is introduced with a particular challenge (question) in mind and I have included these in my summary of each concept below.
Given that publishing is moving toward a decentralised publishing model, how do you ensure that readers are adequately informed?
According to IDEO, Nelson would:
Provide a reading experience that accommodates and comprises multiple perspectives
Allow readers to discover writings based on the impact they’ve had on popular opinion or debate
Allow readers to double check source reliability
Provide insight into current debate
Examine how the discourse has evolved over time
According to IDEO, all the features contained in Nelson would allow us to form our own opinions of the issues that punctuate our times
What is truly worth knowing?
Coupland represents a future notion of the book because it would:
Use professional networks to determine key readings that may be relevant to particular readers
Allow readers to access college reading lists and recommended books
Enable readers to start book clubs and join discussions
Allow popularly purchased books to become available to everyone via the company’s shared library
Create a platform for users to stay in the loop with organisations that inspire
How do we experience written narratives in new and engaging ways?
Alice would:
Invite the reader to engage in the storytelling process (for example, by unlocking geographic locations)
Allow readers to communicate with characters in stories
Enable readers to contribute to the story itself
To me, Alice really stands out as a truly compelling and gripping concept for the future of the book.  While the vision presented by IDEO is just a snapshot of what the future may hold for fiction, IDEO posed some really enthralling concepts for avid fiction readers such as, the capacity to unlock parallel stories or secret plot developments. In this way, Alice seems to employ many methods of interactivity frequently found in games. Most notably, Alice brings to mind interactive movie video games (such as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain). Here, in the present case, we are talking about an interactive fiction narrative that would employ the kind of methods often seen in video games (eg. unlocking parallel stories), but would also introduce new elements such as co-authorship, which is a relatively rare method of narrative development in video games.
Alice presents a very appealing possibility for the future of books and one that could be quiet enjoyable, recreational and absorbing. While it’s possible that readers would not feel inclined to engage in such heavy degrees of interactivity for all of their fictional reads, IDEO notes that Alice operates to invite “exploration beyond just turning the page”. Indeed, as IDEO significantly note, through Alice, a “non-linear narrative emerges, allowing the reader to immerse themselves in the story from multiple angles”. This is perhaps what I find most compelling about IDEO’s final proposal, Alice.

Monocle Magazine: A Case Study in the Fusion of Technology and Traditional Publishing

Launched in February 2007, Monocle is a magazine which is published in print 10 times a year. The magazine also has a strong online presence through its website which is constantly updated. The magazine covers a variety of subject material which are represented by the magazine’s various sections: “Affairs”, “Business”, “Culture”, “Design” and “Edit”. Monocle describes itself as “more of a book then a magazine”. In print form it is designed to be “highly portable (it’s lightweight and compact) and collectible (it’s thick and robust)”. Online, Monocle seeks to focus on “broadcasting with a wide array of films, slide shows and audio reports”.
Why is Monocle a relevant case study?
Although Monocle is a magazine, it employs many practices that exemplify a deft use of technology which is appropriately fused with traditional publishing methodologies. Monocle seeks to strike a kind of balance between its online and print versions which will appeal to readers by feeding into exactly what readers themselves want. Monocle has been identified, in particular by Mark Nagurski of Really Practical, as generating a business model that incorporates an “innovative approach to working with advertisers and sponsors” that holds great potential for the future of publishing and also content marketing.
Web + Print Symbiosis and Content Extension
Nagurski notes that Monocle’s website is not merely a “digital recreation of the print title”; rather, the Monocle website operates to complement and extend the print version of Monocle. This is perhaps what makes the Monocle website such a successful contributory force for the Monocle brand since it makes the website “a destination in itself”. The print version of Monocle is extended, complimented and supplimented by the website through its hosting of video features and podcasts which relate to and expound upon the printed content.
Content Marketing: The Synthesis of Advertising and Content
Piers Fawkes of PSFK comments that Monocle frequently creates “sponsored content” which represents the successful synthesis of advertising and content which “wins for the reader, publisher and advertiser”. A particularly good example of this is presented by Fawkes whose list of 10 examples includes a mention of Absolut who have had an eight page travel guide in the magazine which also advertises a travel pocket book which is available at international duty free stores with the purchase of Absolut vodka. It would seem that Monocle’s style of “sponsored content” is neither blatent advertising nor product placement (depending on the extent of your political cynicism, I guess). Instead, this kind of content marketing allows the magazine to accrue revenue from sponsors while providing readers with information and offers that are more likely to appeal to them.
Stepping Back From the Future
Monocle editor in chief Tyler Brule comments in an interview for The Australian (9 April 2009), that the content for Monocle was determined following his own observation of people’s buying habits at the airport. Brule notes that Monocle is the fusion of what he saw, people “buying something to give them a competitive advantage … and getting something that would give them some sort of payback in hour three or four of the flight, that offers them more enjoyment”. Contrary to many publishers at the moment who are focusing on the future, Monocle is surviving the demands of the technology-riddled contemporary publishing landscape by balancing the tension of what customers are wanting now with the possibilities of available technology.
Brule comments that, from its inception, Monocle sought to be “bookish”. Indeed, the Monocle brand was created with the intention that the magazine should have a collectible quality about it. Accordingly, the magazine’s back-order business is quite successful. While “[i]mmediacy demands that readers consume (other magazines) in one sitting” it is the view of Monocle that their magazine “should sit on your bedside table or coffee table and hopefully you can revisit it agin and again”. Accordingly, as “soon as the new issues goes on sale the previous issue doubles in price”.
Monocle is a very interesting example of a future publishing business model, particularly since it exemplifies a very astute use of technology to extend the potential and reach of its print version, while embracing the seeming paradoxical desire to hold steadfastly to the tangibility and collectability of the book (in this case, magazine) as artefact.