Google, big guys and little guys

Google and the Association of American Publishers have settled their long-standing lawsuit over Google’s digitization of out-of-print but in-copyright books, but the case between Google and the Authors’ Guild remains open.Here is the New York Times report, here is the FT’s, and here is Timothy Lee on Ars Technica, highlighting the separation of interest between publishers and their food course, authors.

The settlement in effect means publishers are contracting out to Google the preparation of e-book versions of their back catalogues – they will pay a fee and get an electronic text they can readily publish. Publishing is a concentrated industry – although there is a competitive fringe, newly enabled by technology-driven reductions in cost, most books are sold by a small number of very large firms. These titans are engaged in a commercial wrestling match with some other very large businesses who are gatekeepers between them and their customers – Google, Amazon, Apple. The economies of scale in the marketing of books, in gaining readers’ attention, are large indeed. So are the network economies in providing a sales platform and suitable reading devices.

Small publishers and authors are minnows in this competition for access to readers. Yet of course some manage to use the technologies to break through, like the famous (notorious?) 50 Shades phenomenon. Let’s hope the fact the authors are hanging on in the US courts means the anti-trust issues get a thorough exploration. As Tim Wu’s excellent book [amazon_link id=”1848879865″ target=”_blank” ]The Master Switch[/amazon_link] demonstrates, there are inherent cycles of concentration in media and communication businesses, punctuated by periodic technological upheavals.

[amazon_image id=”1848879865″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires[/amazon_image]