unbound - google publishing conference at NYPL 01.18.2007, 5:00 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Interesting bit of media industry theater here. I'm here in the New York Public Library, one of the city's great temples to the book, where Google has assembled representatives of the book business to undergo a kind of group massage. A pep talk for a timorous publishing industry that has only barely dipped its toes in the digital marketplace and can't decide whether to regard Google as savior or executioner. The speaker roster is a mix of leading academic and trade publishers and diplomatic envoys from the techno-elite. Chris Anderson, Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin, Tim O'Reilly have all spoken. The 800lb. elephant in the room is of course the lawsuits brought against Google (still in the discovery phase) by the Association of American Publishers and the Authors' Guild for their library digitization program. Doctorow and O'Reilly broached it briefly and you could feel the pulse in the room quicken. Doctorow: "We're a cabal come over from the west coast to tell you you're all wrong!" A ripple of laughter, acid-laced. A little while ago Michael Holdsworth of Cambridge University Press pointed to statistics that suggest that Book Search is driving up their sales... Some grumble that the publishers' panel was a little too hand-picked.
Google's tactic here seems simultaneously to be to reassure the publishers while instilling an undercurrent of fear. Reassure them that releasing more of their books in a greater variety of forms will lead to more sales (true) -- and frightening them that the technological train is speeding off without them (also true, though I say that without the ecstatic determinism of the Google folks. Jim Gerber, Google's main liason to the publishing world, opened the conference with a love song to Moore's Law and the gigapixel camera, explaining that we're within a couple decades' reach of having a handheld device that can store all the content ever produced in human history -- as if this fact alone should drive the future of publishing). The event feels more like a workshop in web marketing than a serious discussion about the future of publishing. It's hard to swallow all the marketing speak: "maximizing digital content capabilities," "consolidation by market niche"; a lot of talk of "users" and "consumers," but not a whole lot about readers. Publishers certainly have a lot of catching up to do in the area of online commerce, but barely anyone here is engaging with the bigger questions of what it means to be a publisher in the network era. O'Reilly sums up the publisher's role as "spreading the knowledge of innovators." This is more interesting and O'Reilly is undoubtedly doing more than almost any commercial publisher to rethink the reading experience. But most of the discussion here is about a culture industry that seems more concerned with salvaging the industry part of itself than with honestly rethinking the cultural part. The last speaker just wrapped up and it's cocktail time. More thoughts tomorrow.
Chris Boese on January 20, 2007 4:50 PM:
I wish I'd known about this, I'd have come over and bugged you, or at least tried to find you there.
In an odd kind of serendipity, I just happened to be strolling through the NYPL that very same day, late in the afternoon. I knew nothing about this event, but I am now a new resident of the area, and literally work just across the park from the library.
I was off on one of my freaky research tangents on Nikola Tesla, but even so, maybe I indirectly caught the vibe of discussions on one of my favorite topics!