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Google Feeds the Bookstore Bookburners

This morning’s Wired blog announced the reality of something I’ve been watching for and expecting for a long, long time: Bookstores have begun installing a significant and vapor-free mechanism (starring the long-but-no-longer vaporous Espresso Book Machine) to print books on demand. The books in question (for the time being) are out-of-copyright works scanned by Google into its Google Books system.

This is a fine thing, even though it probably spells the end of the road for book preservation efforts like my own re-creation of The New Reformation and The Pope and the Council the hard way: Scanning and OCR extraction of text followed by conventional layout. Google books are facsimile editions, complete with library stamps, marginal notations, flaws in hundred-and fifty-year-old paper, and the occasional squashed silverfish. I’d prefer new editions, but I’ll settle for facsimiles, and certain scholars would prefer to see a facsimile to make sure that nothing of the original author’s work has been left out or changed.

So no carping here, except to demand of Google: Keep going. You’ve got the means and the manpower, so expand the system to allow the ordering of any book–not simply the public domain ancients–for which a printable PDF image can be mounted on one of your servers. If this happens, there would be three big benefits:

  • Bookstores would have a new reason for people to come in the door: To browse the bookburner kiosks for interesting stuff (old and new both) that just isn’t popular enough to stock on physical shelves. We need bookstores, and this is the best recent innovation to surface that may help us keep them alive.
  • New (not ancient) titles without sufficient market to warrant physical book distribution (like my SF) would have a chance to get some bookstore presence, especially if hands-on bookburner systems create new sizzle for B&M bookstores.
  • Publishers who won’t release electronic editions of low-volume books for fear of file sharing may be willing to trust a PDF to Google to sell in print form.

It’s still unclear whether anything covered by the Google Books settlement with the Authors’ Guild will become available through the system anytime soon, but in truth, if it doesn’t, I’m not sure authors of our-of-print works will see any financial benefit from the settlement. Ebooks remain a geek enthusiasm. The volume is still in paper copies, and systems like this remove the wasteful overprinting and returns privileges that make conventional book publishing such a financially risky proposition.

Much to love here, and no evil that I can see. Let’s watch, and hope for the best.

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