Google: Friend to the Author, or Fascist Corporate Totalitarians?
“Dude, djoo hear what Google’s doin?” Spud (not his real name) sounded all tweaky and freaked out through the phone. “No,” I said, “what’s Google doin?” “They’re stealin’ our books, dude!” Spud spat. “What are you talkin’ about?” Spud is a very good writer. But I’ve learned you have to take everything Spud says with several tablets of salt, because Spud loves his conspiracy theories, and is happiest when railing against how the Man is ripping him off. “Okay, check this out,” Spud launched. “Google, they’re downloadin’ every book ever written. EVERY BOOK EVER WRITTEN!!! That means your books, and my books, dude, they’re scannin’ em and they’re puttin’ on-line for free. FOR FREE.” “Really?” I had a small panic. That would be bad for business. Very bad. “Yeah, dude, even as we speak, in an underground lab in Mountain View, they gotta team of Umpa Lumpa’s scanning round the clock, my man,” spewed Spud, “and cuz they’re worth, like, 40 kazillion dollars man, they they think they can just like, rule the universe. It’s imperialistic totalitarian corporate fascism, bro, it’s like 1984, like Animal Farm, like Lord of the Flies, they’re like Attila the Hun of the cyber-world man, they’re rapin’ burnin’ and pilagin’ – “ “Spud, slow down, man, come back–“ “And now they’re comin’ after you and me, dude, talkin’ food off our plates, they’re violating our inalienable constitutional rights, they’re like AT&T used to be: ‘We’re Google, we don’t care, we don’t have to.’” After I talked Spud out of going to Google’s Mtn. View headquarters and blowing it to Kingdom Come, I hung up the phone, shaken. I make my living writing books. I have a Young Adult book coming out in April, and I had a vision of kids all over the world downloading my book, printing it out and reading it for free. FOR FREE. I had a vision of my first six-month sales print out: 0 copies sold. Which would mean when I go to sell my next book, that’s the advance I’d get: $0.00. And how am I gonna fight Google? I’m just one sadsack geek pecking away on my G5. They’re Google. They rule the Cyberworld, an omniscient, omnipresent omnibeast that would crush me like a crusty bug and turn me into road kill on the information super-highway. That night I had a terrible dream. A giant head, not unlike the Wizard of Oz, was hovering over me, booming: “I am GOOGLE! I will make millions off the sweat of your brow and the genius of your brain! The great and powerful Google has spoken!” I bolted awake sweating cold bullets, determined to fight this axis of evil with every fiber of my being. Over breakfast I vented about the attack of the killer mutant Google to my lovely and talented wife, Arielle Eckstut, who, thankfully, is the rational half of our partnership. She’s been a literary agent for a dozen years, sold hundreds of books to publishers large and small. I like to say she is one of America’s top literary agents, but she hates when I say that, so I won’t. She’s also the author of three books, two of them with me. To my surprise, Arielle had a very different perspective on the whole Google fiasco. “Look,” she said, “the hardest thing for the author is just getting people to notice your book, if Google can help you do that, great. Only 10% of books earn back their advance, so they go outta print. Look at Satchel Sez.” Satchel Sez is one of the books we wrote together. It’s about the Negro Leagues legend Leroy Satchel Paige. It was an American Library Association pick of the year for teens. It came out in ‘01. It’s now out of print. “We have the last ten copies of that book. Wouldn’t it be great if every time someone Googled ‘Ol Satchel they could find out about our book and read it? That’s why we wrote the thing, so people would read it.” “Yeah,” I sighed, “it’s so sad, it’s like that was our first kid and it died on its fourth birthday.” “And what about Mort Morte?” she continued. Mort Morte is a dark, twisted subversive experimental novel I’ve written that I haven’t tried to sell yet. “No one’s going to give you any money for that book. It’s too weird for mainstream publishers. Imagine if Google could help you reach 100,000 college kids who download that book, and they each told a friend, etc, etc, you could then go speak at colleges, and make money that way. You could go to Hollywood and make a very strong case that you already have a built-in, reachable audience for a movie. It would increase your stock as a writer. And what about business books or medical books? A lot of people write books because they have important information they want to spread. And once these books are out they then use them as a calling card. Like Marty.” She’s referring to Dr. Marty Rossman, a client of hers who has a medical practice in Northern California. He’s an expert on chronic pain and has written several books about it. “He could put his book on Google and get it linked to his office, and sell his DVDs, and his CDs, and his services as a lecturer.” Arielle was really hitting her stride now, like a thoroughbred coming around the turn at Churchill Downs. “And what about Seth?” She was talking about marketing guru, Seth Godin who is famous for giving away his books for free. “He thinks that ideas you give away, you put them out in the world for free, and then people come to you and pay you when they need ideas. Lots of books would be great on Google: poetry, books of essays, short stories. People who are self-publishing. Self-publishing is so huge now. It’s so hard selling a self-published book. Why wouldn’t you want your self-published books on Google, so billions of people could have access to them? Besides, people who love books really love books. They’ve been screaming about the death of books ever since the talkies. But people will always buy books.” At that point all I could do was shake my head and take a deep cleansing breath. After I gathered myself, I said: “Okay, but you wouldn’t want Google giving away PYPIP for free would you?” Putting Your Passion Into Print is the second book we wrote together. It came out in September 2005, and it is still a healthy growing baby, all vital signs very good. Arielle thought for a second. “No,” she shook her head, “ I wouldn’t.” The universe is a strange, mysterious and beautiful place. And the gods are a bunch of merry pranksters. Soon thereafter I got an email from Barbara Lane, from the the Commonwealth Club, a San Francisco institution, where the best and the brightest come to present and debate Ideas. Needless to say, I was shocked that they were contacting me. They were having a panel discussion and asked me if I would like to present the perspective of a book writer. The subject: Google’s announced plan to scan every book ever written and make them available on-line FOR FREE! Naturally, I accepted. Game on! This discussion was to be broadcast on National Public Radio. When I told Spud he almost wet himself he got so excitement, and implored me to kick some Google butt. The panel was moderated by Moira Gunn, host of Tech Nation, and consisted of: Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, a renowned independent bookstore; Brewster Kahle, Digital Librarian and Internet Archivist; Professor Pamela Samuelson, Director, Berkeley Center for Law and Technology of UC Berkeley; and Google lawyer Alexander McAlbrae. Plus me. Naturally, I Googled them all. Including myself/. That night, the Commonwealth Club was packed and buzzing. I felt slightly out of place with all these mucketymucks, but I sucked it up and put on my game face. When the light went on a hush fell over the room, and I swear I heard the Google’s lawyer sphincter snap shut, although I do have an overactive imagination. They grilled the Google lawyer to a crisp, and though he did get a little lawyery, he made it abundantly clear that Google had no intention of scanning and scamming, of uploading books they didn’t have rights to. Of course, he said, we’re going to obey all copyright laws and we’re not out to steal anything in any way shape or form. We want to make information available, while not ripping anybody off. At the end of the whole show, the Google lawyer said: “Google loves authors.” “I’m glad Google loves me,” I replied. In fact, it became clear to me that Google has no intention of making my current book available for free to anyone. However, they now have “Satchel Sez”, they’re scanning it in a basement in Mt. View, and it’s gonna be available for anyone in the world to look at. And with the 100th anniversary of Ol’ Satch’s birthday (or one of them anyway) coming up, I’m tickled pink. I’m seriously considering putting Mort Morte, my dark twisted subversive novel, up there for free too. The Commonwealth Club evening was, for me, a true eye opener. One observation: it’s amazing how when you become a billion dollar business, people start to automatically hate you. I hope one day to have this problem. So, I called Spud up the next day and after he vented at me for being a sellout lackey puppet of the paramilitary industrial state, I explained the whole thing to him. His reply: “Dude, you gotta hook me up with Google.” To listen to the broadcast, go to: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/archive/06/06-01googleprint-audio.html