War of the Words: Google and Amazon

Lynne Kiesling

Couple of interesting developments in digital availability of books. Yesterday Google’s release of the beta of Google Print opened many books, particularly ones that are out of copyright (but also ones on which the publishers provided information to Google), for search and online reading. The content provided is the union of the sets at the New York Public Library, Stanford, Harvard, Univ. of Michigan, and Oxford.

Predictably, authors and publishers “representatives” complain that Google will violate copyright by scanning in works without their permission and allowing people to search their contents. Google contends that it will not allow online access to copyrighted works without permission, and that searching a work is different from reading it.

On the same day, Amazon announced that it would take a page out of Apple’s book, and offer online content by the page. Because it would charge for fuller access than just the currently available “search within this book”, their offering is unlikely to set off the property rights argument that the Google approach has.

This Information Week article on the new services is informative.

My take on Google and Amazon is that their offerings may end up being complements more than substitutes, and that in particular the Amazon approach will have a “long tail” nature to it, for the works that it sells. For other works, particularly those in the public domain, the Google service may be more useful, although it’s too early to say.

An illustrative example: I did not have my copy of Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy close to hand the other day, but I wanted to verify which chapter contained his famous discussion of “the perennial gale of creative destruction” for a reading list I was constructing. At Google Print, when I entered “creative destruction” I got a list of links to references within books other than Schumpeter; I got a similarly non-specific result from Google Scholar. Note that this phrase has become like “Kleenex”; it has entered the vernacular sufficiently that searching on it is quite broad. But I wanted to see what I would get.

Then I narrowed my search to Schumpeter perennial gale creative destruction in Google Print, and while I got a lot of references to Schumpeter’s use of the phrase, I didn’t get a link to the actual book (although the first one that popped up was the editor’s introduction to his Theory of Economic Development).

My reaction to both of my Google Print searches was that they revealed to me a list of books that I should read, and perhaps think about buying. Some of the books were ones I had already read, some were ones of which I was aware, but some were new to me, and sounded interesting and valuable. That’s good, and should comfort the authors and publishers who are taking the word-equivalent of the RIAA line on music, and who are incorrect in thinking that online availability will reduce music sales. You can’t buy what you don’t know exists, and Google Print seems like it will create new information about the existence of potentially interesting books. Also, the left-hand side of the page lists places to buy the book, including the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Froogle, and BookSense.com (an independent bookseller aggregator).

But I was looking for the precise book reference, so I refined my search to include the book’s title, but it still did not pop up. That is likely to change as the database of titles evolves, but it didn’t help me yesterday.

So off I went to Amazon, and I used the “Search inside this book” function on the page for Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Entered “perennial gale of creative destruction,” and Bob’s-your-uncle, there was the page reference. A quick look at the table of contents, also available online, told me that the discussion occurs in Chapter VII.

From the Information Week article:

Both of Amazon.com’s upcoming services [Amazon Page and Amazon Upgrade] stem from its Search Inside the Book option announced two years ago. The feature lets customers find books by searching the text inside, rather than just by author or title. The company says half of the books it sells in the United States are found through such searches.

Search snippets for free, pay an amount less than full book price for an excerpt, pay full book price for online access. That’s the Amazon plan. I think both Google’s approach and Amazon’s approach will open up new opportunities to sell books in situations and to people in which they might not otherwise have bought books. It’s possible, but still an empirical question, that those sales would more than outweigh any book sale deterrence effect at Google from online access through Google Print.

Note, though, the “long tail” aspect of what Amazon is doing, and how similar it is to iTunes. Pay less than book price for an excerpt. Pay 99 cents for a song. What if I didn’t already own C,S, and D, and just wanted Chapter VII? They could charge me, say $4 (and the bloody thing’s only 9 pages long, so that’s a hefty markup!), and I’d be more willing to buy it if I didn’t want or couldn’t afford the whole book.

Think also of edited volumes of essays, where one or two are relevant to your work but you are not willing to pay for the whole (usually hardbound and expensive) thing. Then you weigh the pros and cons of buying access to them through Amazon versus schlepping to the library, checking out the book (if it’s there), copying it, etc. Every individual’s opportunity cost of time differs, but in my case, even though I adore libraries, I would frequently be willing to pay for one chapter out of esoteric volumes when I know what I’m hunting for. If I’m in “gatherer” mode, then I’m more willing to get the book out of the library or buy it, depending on the price.

Some of the whingeing that has occurred comes from author, publisher, and library “representatives” who decry this unbundling of entire works, arguing that they are meant to be consumed as wholes. I reject that elitist notion, which seeks to tell consumers of knowledge how to consume it. Both Google Print and Amazon Page will expand choice sets for consumers. I also predict that in the “perennial gale of creative destruction” authors will change the nature and formats of their works in interaction with these new methods of disseminating new and old knowledge.

One thought on “War of the Words: Google and Amazon

Comments are closed.