Google Press, O Reilly, and a Possible Info Discontinuity

January 4, 2010

Google’s book on HTML5 is moving along. Soon it will be available for sale. At that moment, a seismic shock is triggered in the already Jello like world of traditional publishing. Oh, if you don’t know about the Google Press imprint, you can catch up on your reading by looking at:

For a more robust discussion of the tools Google will use as it solves the copyright problem for new, significant content, check out Google: The Digital Gutenberg, September 2009. Better yet, write me at seaky2000 at yahoo dot com and inquire about a 90 minute briefing on Google’s publishing technology and the disruptions these technologies are likely to let loose in 2010.

First, let me provide some context.

In Google: The Digital Gutenberg I pointed out that Google’s infrastructure works like a digital River Rouge. Put stuff in at one end and things come out the other. The steady progress of Google toward a clean, tidy solution to copyright hassles is for Google to become a publisher. What goes in at one end are content objects and what comes out the other can be just about anything Google can program its manufacturing system to produce.

Now I know that the publishers want Google to [a] quit being Google, which is tough since the Google is little more than a manifestation of technology anybody could have glued together 11 years ago, [b] subsidize publishers so the arbiters of what’s smart and what’s stupid can continue as museum curators of information, and [c] give publishers some of the profits from advertising so publishers can shop for white shoes and vintage motor yachts.


Google uses algorithms like a fishmonger to convert the beastie into tasty, easily sold fillets. Image source:

The solution is simpler. When Google signs up an author, Google offers terms. The author takes the terms or leaves the terms. Now the Google does not go quickly into that good night. The Google takes baby steps. Google has a fondness for Tim O’Reilly, and it supports number of O’Reilly ventures, including the somewhat interesting Government 2.0 conference.

Now another baby step is being taken with the creation of a Google “imprint” within the friendly embrace of Mr. O’Reilly. The addled goose wants to point out that if these tentative steps generate [a] clicks, [b] revenue and [c] a resolution to certain annoying copyright hassles—then several events may transpire:

  1. Google looks at usage data and signs up individuals who produce clicks to create content for the Google system. Mr. O’Reilly may or many not be involved, but the Google is a loyal beast so when Google goes direct, Mr. O’Reilly may become the next big thing in publishing and the Google gets the content and the rights it wants
  2. Google runs algorithms across promising researchers, identifying those with interesting ideas, and invites those lads and lasses to create content objects for Knol or for something along the lines of a virtual Google Review of Mathematics or a Google Review of Theoretical Physics. The notion of a Google scholarly journal identifying authors based on a variant of Google’s “quality” algorithms is an interesting proposition and it guts the scholarly publishing sector in one swift slash of a digital fillet knife
  3. Google sets up a “propose your book, article, video” here page and lets anyone offer Google intellectual property on Google’s terms.

Let us assume that these events transpire. What happens? Here are my hypotheticals.

Assume that authors like me who know that sales of my $300 to $2,000 studies have been declining because the publishers I have lack the money, the know how, and the motivation to sell monographs. An author like me will jump at the chance to give Google my next monograph, assuming that Google will use AdWords and AdSense to flog my monographs in front of the people who actually want to know how Google’s Programmable Search Engine works as opposed to knowing what kind of pizza Messrs. Brin and Page enjoy. I will sign up in a heartbeat.

Assume that lots of people feel the same way. What happens over a span of two or three years is that the pipeline of content for traditional publishing outfits starts to lose its flow. Google can publish without the costs and complexities of traditional publishing outfits. Authors who have long recognized that blockbusters drive the publishing industry will see Google as a way to generate more visibility and revenue than the traditional model which favors the Stephen Kings of the world. Authors of technical materials can move their ideas from notepad to published instance more quickly and without paying some of the crazy fees that certain scientific, technical, and medical publishers impose on authors. An author who becomes a blockbuster can ask Google for more money, and if it is not forthcoming, that author can negotiate with a traditional publisher.

Assume that young researchers who need visibility as much as a job flock to Google. The Google wins in three ways: [a] It gets the information first and in a form that the Google algorithms can process, [b] it has more clout in certain technical fields than any hard copy publication, [c] Google can encourage the young contributors to create videos for that express the idea in a rich media form. Google now has an insight into what’s new and it can use the video content to make the young wizard a media star. Google could monetize the potential blockbuster author or expert itself.

In short, the publishing industry has now been given a look at the neutron weapon in Google’s arsenal. If Google moves aggressively forward with its own publishing efforts, content licensed by the Google, by definition, is content licensed under terms Google finds acceptable. If I were a young math whiz, would I want Google to publish my analysis of my new ant method or would I wait a year or more for Springer or similar publisher to figure out that I was writing about a numerical recipe, not an insect at a picnic?

What happens when the content for certain technical publications slows to a trickle? Will publishers change their compensation for authors? What do you think?

Stephen E. Arnold, January 4, 2010

A freebie. I wish to disclose that I am flogging my monograph for my own benefit and I am paying myself by going to the gym to ride the exercise bike. A semi healthy addled goose is a somewhat happier addled goose even though one health club in Harrod’s Creek pulled the old double billing trick or tried to pull the double billing trick.


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