Get involved in print's evolution

October 1, 2009

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Last month, Google announced a deal to provide two million book titles for printing and binding on the Espresso Book Machine.

If you are not a book printer, you might think this is not important to you. It is. Read on.

If you are not familiar with all the players, a few words of explanation:

Google Books is a Googlesized project with the goal of scanning every page of every book in the world, ostensibly to make the contents available for Google's search service. Depending upon your point of view, this is either a natural extension of Google's “search everywhere” philosophy or another step in its plans for world domination.

The concept of Google Books blatantly overlooks the obvious point that scanning and posting violates copyright laws. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Authors Guild promptly brought suit against Google, and then just as quickly entered into a complex 334 page settlement agreement with Google, the details of which I admit I still am having trouble figuring out.

I'm not the only one. The United States Justice Department has advised the presiding judge on the suit that it thinks the settlement may violate antitrust laws by giving Google a sort of monopoly over digital rights to outofprint books. A group calling itself the Open Book Alliance (funded by such Googlesize enemies as Amazon and Microsoft) agrees.

The Espresso Book Machine is a device promoted by a company calling itself On Demand Books. The Espresso is supposed to be a sort of laser printer with builtin bookbinding. The theory is that bookstores will install the machine, instantly download book titles, and manufacture outofstock or outofprint books on the spot.

Freedom of Espresso

As I write this, Google Books is still embroiled in copyright litigation, so it is important to remember that the two million titles Google proposes to make available for the Espresso Book Machine are copyrightfree. These are very old books whose copyrights have expired, and they are not included in the lawsuit mentioned above. Think Chaucer, Shakespeare and Cervantes.

“Shakespeare in Seconds” was the headline by the Los Angeles Times. Herein lies one reason that this means more in theory than it does in substance. Shakespeare is already on the shelf in every bookstore in America. The real potential lies in finding much more obscure copyrightfree, out-of-print titles for which there is low demand. The presumption is that low demand per book × 2,000,000 titles = high profits.

This concept is very old, and (at least for me) was one of the original attractions of ondemand-digital printing. Here are the things that make this story important to every person reading this.

Google plays for high stakes

Google has identified print as a crucial component in its quest for legitimacy. In the same month that Massachusetts prep school Cushing Academy announced that it will throw out all 20,000 books in its school library, Google declared that online search and view are not enough, and made 100 times that many books available for printing and binding.

Some tell us print is an endangered species

For every printed product and service, an Internet-based alternative can be found. The fallacy is the belief that the very existence of alternative media means that civilization will automatically abandon print.

This month, I've received a No. 10 envelope, business-to-business direct mail solicitation from Yahoo. I've received catalogs from Ebay. My wife just received a saddlebound catalog from an online-only retailer of women's apparel.

All of the above printing is new printing. None of it existed just a few years ago.

Google's two million book titles are very old — all at least 86 years, most hundreds, and some thousands of years. Yet, the printing is new. The vast majority of these books aren't in print right now. If all goes as announced, the printing will be done on demand, in a bookstore, without any of us being involved.

Our challenge, as print providers? Finding the ways to become involved!