Global ebook distribution complexities

Google's Arabic collection is just one example

A publisher at the Sharjah International Book Fair asked me about Google providing access to ebooks in Arabic. How could they do so without asking Arab publishers for permission, he was wondering. This was a simple question requiring a complicated answer.

First, the comment reflects how the groundbreaking news on Google’s recent settlement (with major U.S. publishers to make available the vast treasure vault from scanning entire libraries) is trickling down to distant stakeholders who may have other priorities than reading firsthand accounts on American blogs. Instead, many Arabs are used to learning about big events indirectly, through some kind of hearsay.

Second, it is correct that Google (and a few libraries) claim to have digitized more than 100K books. These include a significant number of works still under copyright, as is documented through the Hathi Trust which handles much of the current library digitization efforts, including Google’s disputed initiative. 100K+ ebooks however is a multiple of all other currently available ebooks in the Arabic language, where digital is still only in the very early stages.

Third, this opens a window onto a landscape far wider than the predominantly English language frenzy on ebooks, so far driven primarily by the U.S. and the U.K., plus perhaps India. Hathi and Google together have stored some 5 million titles so far (compared to Amazon’s digital catalogue of approximately 1 million titles), and roughly half of these books have been written in languages other than English.

The other 2.5 million non-English titles include 500K German titles, and over 400K in French, each again multiples of the catalogues for these languages on Amazon or the respective leading ebook aggregator’s offerings. And so it goes, on and on, for many more languages. The Hathi/Google directory even holds one ebook in the language of the Southwestern ethnic Chinese minority of the Yi people.

As a reader, I am excited about this change of tides to ebooks, from production dominated by a relatively small number of cutting edge Western publishers, plus self-published writers from those same countries, towards the late Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges’ fantasy of a Universal Library, which would include all books ever published.

As an Arab – or German, or French, or Vietnamese – publisher, I would be both puzzled, and frightened (and, after having had a beer or two, belligerent). How can some negotiations between a half dozen companies based in the U.S. result in an agreement (of which the exact terms have not even been made public!) that will lead to a globally effective legal framework impacting my backlist?

In the case of the Arab, or Vietnamese publishers, how much pressure is put on their governments by those same U.S. IP owners to eliminate Arab, or Vietnamese copyright infringements, in view of protecting their control over their content in far away markets? This is pretty ironic.

As an analyst of the globalization of the book industry, my puzzled Arab publisher friend is teaching me several lessons:

  1. Ebooks are much bigger, really, and more complicated, than what we had thought in our wildest dreams;
  2. The expected monopoly of Amazon over global ebooks is probably more limited – outside of a few of the currently leading key markets – than we had feared;
  3. Books have been invented – around Gutenberg (1400 – 1468) – and turned into modern, tradeable containers for ideas – around two centuries ago – to provide the most convenient access to their valuable content to as large an audience as possible.

Well, these promises are becoming realities now on a truly global scale. But the code of conduct needs to improve for the new era to evolve beyond the digital ‘Wild West’ that currently exists.

Ruediger Wischenbart is the author of TOC’s Global Ebook Market Report. You can learn more about him on his website.

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