Scott Rosenberg discusses an increasingly forgotten google service, Google Book Search.
Google Book Search is amazing that way. When it started almost 15 years ago, it also seemed impossibly ambitious: An upstart tech company that had just tamed and organized the vast informational jungle of the web would now extend the reach of its search box into the offline world. By scanning millions of printed books from the libraries with which it partnered, it would import the entire body of pre-internet writing into its database.
Giving you the ability to search through the unparalleled wealth of knowledge socked away in books, Google Book Search was one of the most idealistic efforts by a company which was dominated by such efforts early in its life. So what's become of it?
Two things happened to Google Books on the way from moonshot vision to mundane reality. Soon after launch, it quickly fell from the idealistic ether into a legal bog, as authors fought Google’s right to index copyrighted works and publishers maneuvered to protect their industry from being Napsterized. A decade-long legal battle followed — one that finally ended last year, when the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the Authors Guild and definitively lifted the legal cloud that had so long hovered over Google’s book-related ambitions.
But in that time, another change had come over Google Books, one that’s not all that unusual for institutions and people who get caught up in decade-long legal battles: It lost its drive and ambition.
Many industries have reacted strongly to the case study that was the music industry. We've often seen it labeled as a dead fish, where efforts by the community of free music downloading combined with new players such as Apple killed the market for the existing players. Only, the music industry is far more healthy than the publishing industry.
In retrospect, the publishing industry probably would've been well served by jumping full force into having old books scanned and searched. With growing machine learning, it seems like suggestion algorithms could've been top notch for helping people find new content to read. Offering subscription services is probably the most realistic way for the publishing industry to properly make and distribute revenue.
Now, the publishing industry is facing the issue that people are moving more and more to periodic content, and often simply daily articles, and there is a considerable feeling that this content should be free. We're seeing more organizations having some success offering online subscriptions, and it's certainly not like the established players are going to disappear; but it seems like a missed opportunity.
As for Google, it'd be nice to see them redouble their efforts on the Google Books and make up for lost time. At the very least, I hope they keep silently working diligently on the project and don't Reeder it.