Slicing and Dicing


Well, the big buzz this week was around Amazon, which is going to offer books online, in whole or in part, for a fee. This is generally viewed as a publisher-friendly response to Google’s library scanning project. A few quick thoughts on both initiatives:

The Google Print Library Project, as described by Google, actually sounds very innocent to me. Google will scan and make available the full content of out-of-copyright, public domain books. But for the in-copyright books it proposes to scan, it intends to only display a small snippet containing the text surrounding searcher's key words, and nothing more. As Google describes it, the objective is really discovery of books, not delivery of their content. I'm not sure why this isn't good news for publishers. This may once again be Google's ham-handed public relations raising more ire among publishers than the program itself. Book publishers are so irate that the Association of American Publishers has filed a lawsuit against Google on their behalf.

Interestingly, if the publishers get their way, it may be a boon for data publisher R.R. Bowker, a unit of Cambridge Information Group. That's because the publishers want Google to check ISBN numbers (issued by Bowker in the United States to determine what books may be scanned. Ah, the magic of being in the middle!

Let's move over to Amazon. Nobody can doubt that Amazon knows how to sell books online, but parts of books? May I gently inquire how many people will want to buy a single chapter of a novel? On the B2B side, there have been a number of ventures launched to sell market research and other professional content "by the slice," down to the level of individual charts and sets of statistics. While everyone at the time saw this as an "obvious" opportunity, there don't seem to be a lot of home runs in this area. My suspicion? Those business people willing to grab an out-of-context chart off the Web from a source of unknown credibility to throw into a presentation aren't really doing research. They are looking for third-party validation of a pre-determined conclusion. Paying money to get a solidly-researched answer doesn't make sense to them as they already "know" the answer. So while this is indeed a big market, it's not a market that respects quality content, which is why it has been so difficult to reap meaningful revenue from it.

Both the Google and Amazon initiatives will doubtless change shape and perhaps even focus as they mature, making it hard to predict their impact. For now, it seems as if two key Internet trends will be reinforced: better discoverability of content, which is a boon for existing publishers. At the same time, this discoverability will be available to all, enabling smaller publishers and start-ups to compete more effectively with the big players.

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