Imagine this: Google, whose mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful", realizes it’s too expensive or just not worth it to fight the fight to scan and make copyrighted books available online. Instead they acquire one or more publishing houses (who perhaps can be had for a reasonable price because their major media parents are disappointed with their contributions to the corporate bottom line) with the intention of providing unlimited simultaneous, free access to texts online while "monetizing" that access via advertising in the same way they have very successfully monetized search results. Then being as resource rich as they are, Google attracts writers and book producers by offering better compensation in exchange for the right make their to-be-published works immediately and "universally accessible" online. In addition to monetizing book access, Google claims it is doing “good” by making this information "universally accessible and useful" free of charge to readers.
To see if this was fiscally possible, I checked Google's August 7, 2007 balance sheet as reported on Yahoo Finance. Google has a "capital surplus" (or cash) of over $12.50 billion and net tangible assets of over $17.50 billion.
Random House has been called “the world's largest English-language general trade book publisher" and perhaps the biggest publisher in the United States. In 1998, they were purchased by German media company Bertelsmann AG for $1.4 billion.
Since then the asking price for Random House (if it were up for sale) could conceivably have quadrupled, quintupled or sextupled, but even if that were the case, Google theoretically would have enough cash to purchase Random House and with the resources leftover, purchase 2 more Youtube's at $2 billion a piece. (And let's not even get into discussing the fine line of credit they would be able to take out with any lender worth their salt...)
A more likely scenario would see Google purchasing a smaller publishing house. They could then follow the strategy outlined above: pulling best selling writers and book producers away from other publishing houses by offering better compensation in exchange for the right make their works immediately and "universally accessible" online - which could be attractive to writers and book producers. In time, Google, and other copycat competitors, buy up individual "legacy" publishing houses, gaining their backlist titles and negotiating the rights to make them freely and "universally accessible" online.
Eventually, the “immediately and universally accessible” model becomes the dominant publishing model, although perhaps initially only for adult books.
If this happened, how would libraries respond? and should we actually be lobbying Google and others to follow this path?
There would be justifiable concern about Google (and other for-profit organizations) gatekeeping and controlling access to the world's published material (a significant concern!), but not withstanding the current digital divide, it is difficult to argue that the freely, immediately universally accessible model would not do more, faster, to give more people access to information than libraries ever could going forward.
Would we protest, perhaps out of a short-sighted desire to preserve ourselves as an institution as we have traditionally existed?
Would we embark on some kind of "transformational change" (as many before me have called it), satisfied our mission of providing freely available information is substantially (if not perfectly acheived - perhaps negotiating electronic and hard copy fail safes to maintain access in case Google and others become "evil") and reorient and redevote ourselves using freed up resources to address other community needs - hosting cultural and/or social centers, focusing on instructing and becoming "People's Universities", navigating the available information etc....
Harvey Hahn, my collegue at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, has suggested the same "freely available" publishing model could be applied to databases as well (those available throught Thomson, ProQuest, Gale etc). He suggests that making that information (journal articles, legal info, health info, dissertations, etc.) freely available, could have a greater beneficial impact.
Could a non-profit publisher thrive and sustain itself by using a freely and immediately available model right now? and should libraries be involved in that? My best guess is that it would be difficult, but so many Internet organizations (Wikipedia, Ebay, Craigslist etc...) seem to be able to sustain so many activities that seem unlikely on the face of them.
Discussing the "Google Proposition" as a real possibility gives us a better chance to proactively affect its potential unfolding. If we don't, we risk being caught flat-footed, perhaps reacting in some knee-jerk, but less influential way - akin to "shouting at the river", objecting to its course as it flows by us.
What do you think?