Storm Clouds Over Publishing— Google’s Digital Widget World

The talk was titled “How the Digital Book Cloud Works for Publishers and Users.” The technical meaning of “cloud” here is that in a few months, readers will be able to buy Google Editions of books through their Gmail accounts and access them anywhere they can check their email-forever. The symbolic meanings are threefold: (1) Google’s cloud will be fluffy and cumulus, making the ecosystem prettier for everyone, readers and publishers alike; (2) Google’s cloud will rain down information, fertilizing the ecosystem with ideas; and (3) Google’s is a storm cloud that will ravage every ecosystem in its path.

“A tsunami is coming,” said James Macfarlane, founder of the U.K.-based Easypress Technologies during his Cassandra-like talk “eBooks $how me the MONEY” on Thursday. “The wave is on us now.”

After his talk, Mr. Macfarlane was approached by a man who asked, “How can I make billions off this tsunami?” This was Dr. Anup, M.D., author and publisher of 400 multimedia titles from his own four-person press based in New Jersey. Dr. Anup told the Transom he got his start self-publishing a book for his medical students on rare blood gas disorders. The spare copies sold out of Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, and he discovered a market. Now he caters to a developing-world audience that seeks an American level of care, with titles like Essentials of Diabetes.

“Google makes the whole world the market,” Dr. Anup told the Transom. In Google, Dr. Anup was looking for a partner-or what an ecologist would call mutualist symbiosis.

“Google’s use of the word ‘cloud’ is a lot of hocus-pocus,” OR Books founder John Oakes told the Transom. “It’s a new word that publishers hear and think, ‘Oh wow, here’s a new thing that we want to be a part of.’ But it’s the same process that’s brought publishers to their knees. You have a middle person taking a cut, and the publisher is left with a fraction.”

An ecologist, by this view, would term Google a parasite.

“A book is a pretty advanced instrument itself,” FSG president Jonathan Galassi told the Transom. “No writer wants to give his mother an ebook to show that he wrote a book. All writing is not going to become virtual in five years. It just isn’t.

“There are two competing interests at work. People who want to sell widgets at the lowest possible price. They want action, scale, volume. They’re not interested in creating value. A publisher is invested in the creative process. Somebody should be willing to spend $26 or $28 to buy Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. It’s something that’s going to enrich our lives, and it’s worth that.

“There are ebook consumers who are saying, ‘I’m not willing to spend more than $10 for a book.’ That’s thinking about a book like a widget, where books are interchangeable. It’s not the kind of reading I’m talking about.”

The Transom is inclined to talk about reading the way Mr. Galassi does. Sarah Palin is a widget. Cecily Von Ziegesar is a widget. Keith Richards might be a widget. Dr. Anup makes widgets that save lives. R.L. Stine is a widget. Gertrude Stein is not. Freedom, the volume by Mr. Franzen that Mr. Galassi will be publishing in September, is unlikely to be a widget.

So perhaps when all the widget-books melt into widget-ebooks, only the real books will be left in the undigital ecosystem, and the literature business and the publishing industry will be one and the same.