Notebook: DIY Books, Part II

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

A custom-made reading journal courtesy of Harvard Book Store’s On Demand program

The fate of the Espresso Book Machine (see Notebook: DIY Books, Part I, yesterday!), and its promise of producing any book any reader wanted anywhere, was for a while bound up in the leviathan Google Books Project. In 2002 Google began, in collaboration with a consortium of libraries, an ambitious project to digitize all the world’s books, exponentially expanding Google’s reach to include, as James Somers described in an absorbing and comprehensive account in The Atlantic, “one of the great untapped troves of data left in the world,” the printed record. What Somers described as Google’s “thing where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission” proved its undoing, at least temporarily: authors and publishers balked at this assault on their copyright protections, and Google Books was entangled for years in complex litigation.

Google Books endures, of course, and provides search ability across a wide range of books and full access to a large number of books that are out of print and in the public domain. Google Books invites you, if you like, to materialize one of these on an Espresso Book Machine somewhere (click “Get this book in print” and “On Demand”), or to secure a copy in a variety of other ways. But Google has been constrained from becoming the comprehensive repository that would have made Paige Gutenborg at the Harvard Book Store a cyborg librarian to everything. It’s interesting looking back over the coverage of the struggle that—as with many of technology’s promises of unprecedented convenience—cheerleaders for the Google project did not anticipate what was being given away in return for the anticipated benefits: proprietorship over the search data of all the world’s readers. Commentators at the time argued that “some discreet advertising” was a small price to pay for Google Books’ proposed contribution to civilization; they did not foresee an environment in which the Big Five tech firms would be marshaling an ever-increasing share of revenue for the world’s intellectual property.

The Supreme Court declined two years ago to review the Second Circuit Court of Appeals’ support of a lower court ruling that Google Books’ search function, which shows a “snippet” of a book under copyright in response to a word search, is “fair use” of an author’s intellectual property. Since then it has become more visible that Google had accrued onto itself the financial benefit of the ability to search the text and collect the searcher’s preferences—a benefit that might have been enjoyed by the creator. As Author’s Guild president Roxana Robinson said in a statement for the petitioners at the time, it’s all “further proof that we’re witnessing a vast redistribution of wealth from the creative sector to the tech sector, not only with books, but across the spectrum of the arts.” Relatedly, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Google and Facebook absorbed 58 percent of the total digital advertising revenue for national news media in 2017, and a devastating 77 percent of the revenue for local media. Wired noted that tech writer and novelist Robin Sloan, who used Google Books and its limitations as a plot device in his 2012 novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, wondered if Google couldn’t be making all the data, now behind closed doors, available for “machine learning,” a prospect he finds inspiring. Sloan “assumes Google is already doing this internally” in Wired’s account, though engineers at Google would not say. Again, an intellectual and potential financial benefit accrues to Google for work they had no part in creating.

Although Paige Gutenborg’s relatively modest reach may, then, in some respects be disappointing, it may also reflect some stubborn resources harbored by the printed word in the face of Big Tech. Harvard Book Store’s Meriwether said that workers at the store felt that the burst of readerly interest inspired by their home-made Mueller report “says something about the role that small, nimble businesses can play in the intellectual life of their communities.” Their customers were saying, ‘‘I'm tired of looking at my screen all day!’ … As we called, texted, and emailed customers on Friday and Saturday to tell them their copies of the book were ready to pick up, we were thanked over and over again. The positive response and community support has been particularly gratifying.” Espresso’s Nina Ellis noted, for example, “in the suburban and historic Connecticut town of Darien, the [Espresso Book Machine] located at the public library prints many works of family and personal history … What makes the Espresso Book Machine so unique is that it’s tying books to a place and works with the needs of a community.”

According to Harvard Book Store’s On Demand Manager Ben Paul, Paige works hard most days (though not most nights), printing fifty to sixty copies of everything from hard-to-find rare editions to dissertations to kids’ poetry. (They sold about 1,100 Mueller reports.) She collaborates with book design classes and makes custom editions of interesting things the staff finds in the public domain (they are enjoying combing through the tranche of books published in 1923 that are just now exiting copyright) and reading journals designed by members of the staff (see above). Several publishers have arrangements with Espresso that allow bookstores to print on demand books that are in print as well, an option taken by customers who want on the spot a book they haven’t found on the shelves. About two-thirds of Paige’s on-demand projects, though, are self-published works by customers, some making things for family and friends and some aspiring to be published authors—a huge market not envisioned by Espresso’s founders.

Self-publishing is now much bigger than the Espresso Book Machine. Self-published authors now have thriving online communities and resources like Lulu, SmashWords, Author Solutions, IngramSpark, and Amazon’s CreateSpace (Espresso offers its own suite of self-publishing tools called SelfEspress). In 2017 the number of self-published books topped 1 million for the first time. The online writing community Wattpad in April announced a deal granting Sony Pictures a first-look option at their stories, cutting out the publishing middleman. Among all the self-publishing options, though, working directly with a bookstore offers authors hands-on design advice and a chance to see the book on the shelf in their own neighborhood.

Like the platforms and Hummingbird, which enable readers to buy ebooks and audiobooks through their local bookseller, the Espresso Book Machine provides the benefits of on-demand publishing in a way that supports local book retail and book communities. To put a child or grandparent’s reminiscences in a book is a gift that honors both their vision and the value and permanence of the written word. If you are searching for an obscure book that is out of a publisher’s stock, consider that ordering it print-on-demand through a bookstore-based Espresso machine like Paige benefits the author and publisher (if it is in copyright) as well as the bookseller. The promise of a vast, centralized repository of all learning may be both inspiring and fraught with moral, legal, and commercial implications, but the great potential of digital reading can still come home to benefit readers, families, and neighborhoods, through your local bookstore.

This is the second of a two-part post. Read Part I here.

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