In the first decade of the internet empire, mainstream book publishers have been notoriously slow to explore the possibilities of putting literature online; but with Google proposing to upload every book on earth to the internet, their moment of truth is surely approaching.
Over recent months a gargantuan legal showdown has been brewing between Google Inc. and the American publishing industry, relating the former’s ‘Google Print Library Project’, which will involve scanning and uploading the contents of virtually every book on the planet. Many book publishers have been outraged by this attempt to infringe upon their intellectual properties, fearing that the products they have traditionally sold for profit will soon be ‘free to air’ for anyone with an internet connection. But at a deeper level, the very existence of Google’s project only highlights the fact that traditional publishers have failed to address the possibility of digitally distributing literature.
Meanwhile, a few of the more progressive publishers are taking up the challenge, and making their own moves to put literary content online. According to John Mansfield, webmaster for the avant-garde small press Total Cardboard Publishing, ‘Most of the book publishers have basically ignored the possibilities of the web. I think they’re ignoring it because they’re happy with how their business is running, and a little bit afraid of losing control of their publications. But if you keep ignoring it you’re just going to get left out. You can’t stop the future. ’
A minority of book publishers have started making serious moves towards online content, in parallel with traditional print distribution. Total Cardboard, for example, has established an ‘Online Reading Room’, where many of their publications are available in full as web pages. Asked if he is afraid that people will not buy their books when they can read them free online, Mansfield says ‘No, not really. Physical books still have something special to offer that will never be superseded by the internet, as far as I can see. We just see the Online Reading Room as a way for more people to be able to read our publications. If anything, I think it might increase sales, by increasing exposure. ’
With the world wide web still evolving faster than anyone could hope to predict, only time will tell if Mansfield’s confidence comes from foresight or imprudence. In any case, publishers will have to start facing up to online content soon, if Google are to be prevented from gaining an insurmountable advantage in the distribution of digital literature.
The Total Cardboard Online Reading Room can be viewed at www.totalcardboard.com .
Tony Macaroni is a freelance writer.