Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Finding An Orphan

Based on my personal experience working with small and medium sized publishers, it will be prove very difficult for anyone reaching out to the 'Orphan' group to encourage them to participate in the Google Book Settlement process.

When I joined Bowker in 1999, we were still using the post office to mail our publisher check lists to over 55,000 small and independent publishers each year. These check-lists represented our primary communication with this group of publishers most of whom published less than 10 titles each (many only one). These publishers had one chance per year to correct any errors or change any prices to make sure that year’s edition of Books In Print had the most accurate information. This should have been sufficient motivation then for any publisher who understood that Ingram, Barnes & Noble, Borders and a raft of independent booksellers relied on BIP for their title research and buying. When we reviewed this process and analyzed the results that year – forms returned and changes made – the data showed us that less than 20% of this group bothered to return the document and of these less than 50% made any kind of change. Even with a degree of financial motivation, over 40,000 small and independent publishers couldn’t be bothered.

Certainly, you could argue this had to as much to do with the paper based process as it did their disinterest; however, several years later when we had fully implemented BowkerLink the small press group of publishers remained largely anonymous. By 2005, the publisher data base had grown from 65,000 in 1999 to approximately 85,000 and we counted approximately 45,000 publishers registered on BowkerLink. BowkerLink includes both US and international publishers and registrations were naturally skewed to active and newer publishers. In the transition, we aggressively mailed to every publisher encouraging them to register and manage their title listing online. We also proactively cleaned the publisher address file using the National Change of Address (NCoA) file which we had not been using prior to 1999. I think we eventually stopped mailing paper checklists in 2004. Still, the number of small and independent publishers who chose to participate only increased marginally even as Bowker made the title management process more inclusive.

Most of the Books In Print database reflects titles published after 1970 and most observers of the Google settlement expect that the large proportion of Orphan titles are going to be found in the pre-1970 grouping. If it has been challenging to engage the small and independent publishers post 1970 then the earlier group will be significantly harder. Whether the publicity around the Google Book Settlement proves more of a motivator than the options the post 1970 group often disdained such as listing their title(s) in bibliographic databases, asserting their ownership via the copyright office and/or selling their title on Amazon.com remains to be seen. I have my doubts. If the expectation of retail glory (however misguided) at Amazon.com hasn’t galvanized anyone with an ‘Orphan’ copyright then Google probably wont either.

I hope the lack of interest changes if real money is dispensed. The Authors Guild has stated that when you are collecting money for people and looking to disperse it recipients have a tendency to show up at your door. Around 2001, the AG started collecting the money due from rights and permissions for authors. (Previously this had been handled by CCC). Not only did they become proficient at collections but their membership and disbursements increased. All good things, but their membership is still less than 10,000. Not only do they not have a lot of undistributed revenue but they also haven’t seen a mammoth rise in members.

1 comment:

Michael W. said...

In some ways, the Google settlement is like a class action lawsuit against Apple that I was once asked to join. I certainly qualified. I owned two older Apple computers that were the focus of the dispute and one really did, as the suit alleged, run OS X hideously slowly.

But I didn't participate because from my end participation made no sense. The labor involved for the mediocre payment was too much. I had to read and sign complicated legal documents, return a CD, and agree to be legal bound in ways I didn't like in return for what--a mere $25. I could earn more flipping burgers.

The Google settlement is like that but much worse. The payment for those whose copyright has been infringed is a pittance, $60 or less. Factor in the time it'd take to even begin to figure what the 300-plus-page document means and child laborers in third world hell-holes are better paid. That's not even getting into the rights a copyright holder signs away to participate, including the right to take Google to court. Lose that, and you lose any leverage to force Google to accept any interpretation of this complicated settlement other than their own.

For most authors and publishers, there's little reason to try to make sense of the complicated settlement terms. It is foolish to sign something no one really understands and even more foolish to spend so much time trying to understand it that, even if you opt-in, you'll never earn what your time is worth.

In short, opt-out and be done with it is the best solution for most authors and publishers. In the unlikely case the settlement actually generates significant income, you can always join later when what is meant by signing is clearer.

There's another factor. With the Justice Department looking at the settlement as an anti-trust violation, the judge may toss the settlement out altogether. All those hours of effort to understand it won't earn you a penny.

The settlement is also headed for major trouble in the global arena. Because it applies to the U.S. copyrights held by almost all writers of books in the world, the international treaties we've signed with some 160 countries apply and even a casual reading suggests it violates those treaties. The press in this country hasn't picked up on that story yet, but opposition is growing overseas and at some point it will begin to bear on the outcome. We could end up in a nasty copyright war, particularly with Europe.