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June 3, 2009

Elisabeth Sifton on book publishing and Amazon's presumption

A book in not an article, let alone an ARTicle, but both books and newspaper articles offer ideas and artistry in print, and both publishing and newspapering are troubled industries, on the verge of a most uncertain future on the Internet.

Elisabeth Sifton is a veteran publisher under whose auspices a lot of good books have appeared. She has an article in the June 8 Nation called The Long Goodbye? Much of it is a chronicle of the publishing business in this country over the last few decades, with its few heroes and many mistakes of strategy and taste.

Towards the end she tears into Google for its presumption that it can and should obtain the rights to all book content for free. She mocks "the fatuous surprise of Google's Sergey Brin discovering that 'There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site.'" Brin's "'debased lingo" sees books only as "'viable information retrieval systems,' information being the only cultural signifier he recognizes, evidently....For billionaires like Brin, accessing the giant river of book 'content' onto which they can glue paid advertising is simply a giant new way to make more money, and they are single-minded about that."

Even now, newspaper publishers like Rupert Murdoch are struggling to come up with ways to get people to pay for web content that they've grown used to getting for free. Internet publishers like Doug McLennan argue passionately that making print content available for free on the web is valuable free publicity for the print publishers.

One could also argue that Google's aggressive stance toward amassing publishing rights is not, or not just, pure greed but the only efficient way to cut through vested interests and reach the extraordinary goal of the world library on the Internet. The historian Robert Darnton, who now runs the Harvard libraries, has offered some nuanced analysis of this whole nexus of issues in several articles in the New York Review of Books.

So maybe things aren't all bleak, with philistine geeks subverting the purity of scholarship and literature. Still, Sifton's cri de coeur offers a thought-provoking alternate view to the one preached by the Brave New World futurists everywhere among us.

June 3, 2009 1:58 PM | | Comments (0)

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