From Gutenberg to Google

Michael Healy, Pace’s David J. Pecker Distinguished Visiting Professor in Publishing and Executive Director of the Book Rights Registry discusses how advances in technology are changing the way we look at books… literally.

When the dot com bubbled in the 90s, venture capitalists and internet startups around the world screamed that print was dead. While that wasn’t the case (and may never be), there’s no denying the impact recent strides in technology have had on publishing. Just hop on any plane, train, or automobile and look around—people are reading their Kindles, listening to the latest download, catching up on current events via their iPad. On November 30, Professor Healy, gave one in a series of lectures on the future of the industry for the MS in Publishing Program and industry insiders.

Here, he shares some of his insight into the future of ePublishing.

You are involved in some of the seminal events that are shaping the future of digital publishing, such as working with publishers and authors on the Google Book Settlement. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I am currently the Executive Director of the Book Rights Registry, a new organization that will be created as a result of the Google Book Settlement. As you may remember, there was a well-publicized class action lawsuit which was brought in 2005 by the Authors Guild and Association of American Publishers to prevent Google from displaying parts of books it had been digitizing through its relationships with a number of university libraries.  The authors and publishers felt Google’s display of the books was an infringement of copyright, a claim Google denied by saying it was “fair use”. The lawsuit was settled in October 2008 (although the settlement has not been finally approved by the judge). The proposed settlement contains several provisions: One is the establishment of a nonprofit Book Rights Registry that will represent the interests of authors and publishers in the settlement. The primary role of the organization will be to act as a place where authors and publishers can claim their books and register how they would like them to be used by Google and possibly others in the future.  When Google earns money from using the books, 63 percent of the money will go back to the Registry for distribution to the authors and publishers (once a judge approves the settlement). We have been waiting to hear the outcome since February of this year. In the meantime, my job is to prepare for the establishment of the new organization.

If the settlement is approved and the Google Book Settlement moves forward, how will this affect the publishing industry?

The settlement focuses on books that are largely still in copyright, but mainly out of print. These are an estimated seven to eight million somewhat obscure or forgotten books—books that you will find in libraries but not bookstores. One of the great benefits is that Google Books will create a mechanism for getting those hard to find, out of print books. It’s very good for both publishers and authors, as it gives them a new stream of revenue for books that were previously earning little or nothing, and great for scholars, students and other readers because it opens up a treasure trove of books previously hidden in the collections of libraries.

Michael Healy
Professor Healy discusses how the industry is evolving in this interview with The Publishing Point.

How did you get involved in the field of digital publishing?

I think I’m something of an oddity. I have been in publishing for about 25 years, in one form or another. Unlike many others, I never did much conventional print or book publishing. I have been in digital publishing my whole career. That can be surprising to people who think that digital publishing is only five years or as old… as old as the Kindle. It

has actually been around since the 70s. In the early days in the 80s, digital publishing was a phenomenon that mainly affected academic publishing—databases in library and universities, and ultimately journals. All of the excitement and controversy that’s now going on is because it’s affecting consumer and trade publishing, what many equate to the “publishing industry.” But there are other publishing sectors, such as academic, scientific, and medical, where digital technology is nothing new—those sectors have been grappling with its opportunities and challenges for some time.

You’ve been giving a series of lectures at Pace that focus on new developments in digital publishing. Can you provide some highlights from your most recent lecture?

This lecture is called “Building a Better Mousetrap: Form, Function, and the Evolution of eBooks.” It’s based on the observation that technology is radically changing the way books are promoted and delivered, and the way people are consuming with readers and tablets. The way we consume, market, and distribute books today—everything in the supply chain is subject to change. However, the books themselves are changing much more slowly: the content is not changing, only the format is changing… in a very superficial sense. A lot of eBooks are electronic facsimiles of printed equivalents. So I wanted to examine, with all the technology and innovation available to us, why that is occurring, is the text remaining largely unchanged?

It’s an interesting point that, in their current form, eBooks are little more than electronic versions of the print. Are there any areas where you are seeing innovation?

There are pockets of experimentation, and that’s what I want to explore—what they are, what they reveal about publishers and readers, what the next generation of digital books might look like. For example, I read a lot of books electronically and when I’m traveling, instead of buying several guide books, I load them onto my iPad. What struck

me about using these new types was how imperfect they were, how they were inferior in functionality to the ones I would have traditionally bought in print! Why are publishers so reluctant right now, to experiment in new forms? Travel, cookery, and all sorts of non-fiction books could be enhanced so easily and cheaply with digital technology, but it’s not happening in a significant way yet. There are one or two trade publishers who are starting to enhance books with video, and some, like Penguin, have been linking text to websites, TV adaptations, and video on the web. In cookery, you’re starting to see links to videos where you can see the finished recipe, or where you have the ability to enter information, such as ingredients, into the device to find a recipe. Interesting things are being done, but these are the exceptions rather than the norm. However, I think that will change. The appetite for digital books is high at the moment, so publishers are growing in confidence, and that builds more confidence in the medium.

How do you think this ability to “publish” affordably online is changing the industry? Do you find more and more people are deciding to just do it themselves?

Self-publishing is taking off—that’s an extraordinary phenomenon. I think the stigma is disappearing and it’s becoming more acceptable to do it. We’re going to see a great deal more of that going forward, particularly as more big-name celebrity authors start asking: Do we need traditional book publishers? For example, the well-known writer Seth Godin,

has recently announced he will be self-publishing his next book. That calls into question what is truly distinctive and valuable about the modern publisher. It used to be that authors needed publishers for production, distribution, and sales, but technology now is forcing everyone – publishers, authors, agents and booksellers – to ask where the distinctive contribution of a publisher really lies.  It’s a fascinating time to be in the industry for these reasons.

You recently came back from a conference in China about the future of digital publishing. Were there any surprises or new developments there?

They are grappling with many of the same sets of issues as we are in the United States. We may be a little further ahead in the process, but we’re all on the same journey. It was striking how similar the challenges are. The world really has shrunk.