Microsoft Woos Book Publishers

Microsoft is now wooing publishers for its Live Books project, using as a tagline, “your search for new readers – and new profits – is over.” Like Google Book Search‘s publisher program, they will scan print books or will accept digital copies. And like Amazon’s Search Inside, this search will allow for discovery, but not for printing, saving, or cut-and-paste. And there’s only so much a user will be able to see.

The rights holder sets the percentage of the book that will be viewable by a user in each 30-day period, starting at 5% of the book and going up to 100%, in 5% increments. The maximum number of viewable pages will be a percentage of the total number of pages in the book. The user can navigate through the book as he or she wishes until the percentage limit is reached. . . . For each page that contains one or more of the user’s search query terms, approximately 25% of the total page will be displayed (either in one continuous segment, or in two or more discrete segments). The remainder of the page will be obscured so that its content is not readable.

Boy, does that sound convenient or what?

Unlike libraries, all of these full-text book searches track what an individual is looking at – here, to make sure you don’t read more than a percentage of the book within a given month. (Amazon only allows people who have made purchases at Amazon to Search Inside; Google just wants to know everything. As a company official said in the New York Times yesterday, “Ultimately, our goal at Google is to have the strongest advertising network and all the world’s information.” All? Wow.)

This tracking of who’s reading what is something libraries are reluctant to do, believing privacy is a precondition of freedom to read. Interestingly, an article in the current issue of Educause Quarterly says librarians need to get over their obsession with privacy because it limits customization. “Dogmatic library protection of privacy inhibits library support for file-sharing, work-sharing, and online trust-based transactions that are increasingly common in online environments, thus limiting seamless integration of Web-based services.” Not to mention seamless execution of search warrants and National Security Letters. But, hey. Would you put safety of the few ahead of convenience for the masses? Don’t answer that.

Though the University of California and the University of Toronto are participating in Microsoft’s project, there doesn’t appear to be any plan to have a “find in a library” function – or if there is, Microsoft isn’t telling publishers. After all, if you’re trying to grow the market for books, you wouldn’t have anything to do with libraries, would you? They don’t sell books.

Actually, if you thought about it you would. I’m willing to bet those who use libraries are more likely to be book buyers than those who don’t. But right now publishers seem more worried about someone reading a book without paying for it than about growing the market for their books generally. And that’s sadly short-sighted.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

3 thoughts on “Microsoft Woos Book Publishers”

  1. I work for a publishing company and can say that we’re not looking at the short-term benefits of enabling online accessibility of books, but obviously do want it to relate to revenue in some form – by helping deliver the right books to the right people (so yes, it’s all about relevancy, which is what libraries are all about). And we will continue to see libraries as an important part of ensuring this happens. The fact is, people do actually like to own their own print copies of books as well. Neither approach is mutually exclusive.

  2. I can say from personal experience that some of us have to wonder from time to time if our joists can really support yet another row of double-stacked books on our too-stuffed shelves. An engineering background would come in handy – or maybe it would just make me too nervous.

    Seriously, what I wish we had better data on was exactly what the relationship is between exposure to a multitude of books (through libraries and, quite possibly, through online discovery tools) and sales. There was a study years ago (I was madly trying to find the reference while writing this post, but couldn’t put my finger on it – and she calls herself a librarian…) that bookstores benefited from being located close to libraries. I am all for supporting the industry because books really matter – and, to paraphrase Willy Sutton, why support publishing houses? Because that’s where the books come from.

    But to make online content awkward to use because we may not have a good mechanism for using it to generate direct revenue to support the enterprise is, to me, like having books in bookstores shrink-wrapped to discourage too much free browsing. Browsing can stimulate sales, and help people connect to books in a positive way. And from what I hear from students – the demographic everyone worries about – there’s a strong desire to avoid staring at a computer screen any more than necessary and a lingering fondness for books that can be held.

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