Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why Google Book Search Is A GOOD Thing For Indies

Note: This article is a cross-posting from

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about Google Book Search lately. Mainstream publishers and authors are variously confused, angry or nervous about GBS, but for indie authors and small imprints, it’s all good.

What’s This All About, Then?


Google Book Search is a tool from
Google that searches the full text of books that Google scans, converts to text using optical character recognition, and stores in its digital database. The service was formerly known as Google Print when it was introduced at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2004. When relevant to a user's keyword search, up to three results from the Google Book Search index are displayed above search results in the Google Web Search service (

A user may also search just for books at the dedicated Google Book Search service. Clicking a result from Google Book Search opens an interface in which the user may view pages from the book as well as content-related advertisements and links to the publisher's website and booksellers. Through a variety of access limitations and security measures, some based on user-tracking, Google limits the number of viewable pages and attempts to prevent page printing and text copying of material under copyright.

GBS Offers Benefits To Authors And Publishers

Book search results served up by GBS include a cover image, table of contents, keywords from each chapter, excerpts from throughout the book, and where-to-buy links. GBS provides publishers and authors with a new avenue to help consumers find their books, read excerpts, and even buy those books.

In addition, authors and publishers who sign up to be a
GBS Partner (required if you want to upload your own books) receive additional benefits. Partners can view reports containing detailed information about when and how their GBS books have been accessed, as well as how frequently GBS users click on the where-to-buy links for their books. GBS book pages also contain Google AdSense ads which have been targeted based on the content of the book currently being viewed, and GBS Partners receive a portion of the ad revenue Google earns for click-throughs on those ads.

So What’s The Problem?

Exposure plus maybe enough ad revenue to buy yourself a fancy coffee once in a while...what’s not to love? If you’re an indie author or small imprint, nothing. But the mainstream has four major beefs with GBS: Google didn’t ask their permission, GBS muddies the question of when a book goes out of print, GBS introduces some level of copyright risk, and publishers and authors have no control over how GBS presents their books to the public.

Google Decided It’s Better To Beg Forgiveness Than Ask Permission

When Google came up with the idea for GBS they realized it would only work if the majority of published books are part of the GBS database, because the more complete the database, the more useful and trustworthy it becomes. Rather than go to all the publishers of the world and ask if GBS could please scan each publisher’s books into their database, Google simply issued a public statement of their intent to do so. GBS also included functionality that allows authors and publishers themselves to upload books directly to the database.

Legal wrangling eventually resulted in a
settlement agreement that allows authors and publishers to opt their books out of GBS, but the default setting for all books is opt-in: unless you specifically take action to opt out per the terms of the agreement, your books are fair game to be scanned or uploaded to the GBS database. Though the agreement was hard-won, most major publishers are not choosing to exercise the opt-out option, and that's making many mainstream authors very nervous.

This is a non-issue for indies, for two reasons. First, indie books are very low on GBS’ list of priorities where getting content for their database is concerned, and are therefore only likely to find their way into the GBS database if we upload them ourselves (effecting a post-facto ‘opt-in’). Secondly, if you don’t want your books in the database but find that someone else has scanned or uploaded them, GBS provides a
simple means to have them removed. Since we retain all rights to our work, we don’t have to go along with a publisher’s decision to opt in or out of GBS.

When Does A Google Books Book Go Out Of Print?

Mainstream publishing contracts typically stipulate that when a publisher stops manufacturing or distributing a given book for sale, publication rights for that book revert to the author. The author is then free to re-publish the book themselves, or through a different publisher. Mainstream authors are worried about the possibility that a book in the GBS database could be construed as “in print” indefinitely, though there have yet to be any court cases to settle the matter.

Indies don’t have to worry about it, because we retain all publication rights to our work from day one. Even if the courts eventually find GBS books meet some legal definition of the term “in print”, thereby allowing publishers to retain publishing rights so long as the books are in the GBS database, it won’t matter to us because we are our own publishers.

Does GBS Pose New Copyright Risks?

Publishers and authors are also worried about the risks of copyright infringement introduced by allowing an outside party to store the entire text of their books in a database, and by allowing excerpts of those books to be displayed online. While GBS provides excerpts, cover images and bibliographic data for every book in its database, it does not provide the full text of any book to GBS users, nor does it provide any easy means to download or even print any of the content shown onscreen.

Given enough time, a motivated, technically skilled pirate could theoretically steal the excerpts and cover images for re-use in some illegal fashion, but the same is possible for any book on a public library shelf. If anything, public libraries and book lending among friends pose a greater piracy threat, since anyone in possession of the entire book can scan or copy its pages for illegal re-use.

There’s also the omnipresent threat posed to any online system: that hackers may find a way to get into the database and download entire files---in this case, books---for nefarious purposes. Possible, yes. Likely, no. And unless you’re a well-known or best-selling author, the risk that a hacker might choose to copy and illegally redistribute your book is very, very small. If you’re worried about GBS security and find your book becoming so popular that piracy is a legitimate concern, you can always just
pull it out of the GBS database.

Presentation And Advertising

GBS serves up book search results in their own, fixed format, and also includes Google AdSense text ads targeted according to the content of the book being displayed on the right-hand side of the page. Authors and publishers have no control over the book display format or content, nor over the advertising display or content.
Those who want to micromanage their book’s image and exclude outside advertising are not pleased, but they don’t seem to realize that so long as their books are available for sale through any online retailer, matters of display and advertising are out of their hands anyway.

Any book available online can be found using a simple Google search, and the results page for any Google search includes targeted Google AdSense advertising links on the far right-hand side. Authors and publishers have no control over the ads, nor do they receive any portion of the revenue earned on those ads.

Furthermore, once the searcher clicks through on a link to Amazon, Borders, B&N or wherever else, the book they’re looking for will be displayed in that store’s standard format, over which authors and publishers have no control. Book listings in online stores almost always include advertising in the form of cross-sell links to other books in which the searcher may be interested---typically, competing books from other authors.

Another complaint in this area is the revenue split on advertising displayed on GBS book pages. Recall that Google splits GBS ad revenue with GBS Partners, and in the case of a mainstream publisher, the publisher will be the GBS Partner, not the author. To me, this seems a matter to be settled between mainstream authors and their publishers rather than a GBS issue.

Yet again, indies have no need for concern here. We can sign up to become GBS Partners and keep all of the ad revenue split for ourselves.

Still Not Sure Whether To Upload Your Books?

If you have concerns about the risks and possible ramifications of allowing your books to be listed on GBS, carefully review the GBS
Program Policies and the settlement agreement with an attorney versed in matters of copyright and publishing law before making any decisions. You might also want to read this Authorweb piece on GBS.

One more thing - if you're self-publishing in the hopes of attracting a mainstream publisher, it's probably best to err on the side of caution and leave your books out of GBS since you can't predict how a future publisher with which you may have dealings will feel about GBS.

My Experience With GBS

I’ve had my novels,
Adelaide Einstein and Snow Ball, listed on GBS since May of 2008. Joining the Partner program was very easy and GBS dovetails seamlessly with other Google services I already use like gmail, AdSense and the like.

From the time I uploaded the books it took about three months for them to show up in GBS searches, but the process is probably bit speedier now that the settlement agreement has again freed GBS to focus the bulk of their energies on scanning and uploading content.

My Partner reports show I’m getting a smattering of page views, but if viewers are subsequently buying my books, they’re not using the GBS where-to-buy links to do so. I’ve also yet to see any ad revenue from GBS. I suspect this meager traffic is due in large part to the fact that while GBS is widely known and discussed in author and publisher circles, the general public is largely unaware of its existence. Go ahead, ask a non-bookish friend or family member if they know about Google Book Search.

As the GBS database grows, and given Google’s track record of success in rolling out new products and services, GBS will probably become as ubiquitous as Google search and gmail eventually. I have no regrets about listing with GBS. I subscribe to the Just Get It Out There In Front Of As Many Eyeballs As Possible school where my books are concerned, and GBS is poised to deliver quite a few eyeballs indeed.

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