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Good for the reader, iffy for the authors

Dana Buntrock, chair, Center for Japanese Studies | November 16, 2009

I agreed to make my first book (published nearly a decade ago) available on-line with Google books.  I considered it only fair; Google allowed me to check a lot of quotes for my second book (forthcoming) with lightening speed. My earlier book was, however, still selling when I made the call.

Digital distribution of resources is a boon to many readers not able to access wonderful collections like those on our campus. I know this because I experienced it myself; while I was in Japan on a Fulbright in 2006 and 2007, I used many on-line materials available through JSTOR, Google, and other sources.  Baker, our campus-based research support, tracked down and sent me digital copies of hard-to-find articles on more than one occasion as well. Friends at the University of Tokyo, some working on relatively obscure topics (e.g., architecture in Tajikistan), were simply blown away by what I accessed on-line.

But producing a book has high costs (and they seem to just get higher). Thousands of dollars, in my case, for photography. Add travel in Japan’s rural pockets over more than a decade – far more costs than all those grants were able to subsidize. I’m slogging through the index, now – also, today, often paid for by the authors. I do not write for the royalties, but I will be lucky if I break even – and today, the costs of scholarship are not balanced by our salaries. (Even without the costs of furloughs, disciplinary differences mean that I am apparently in the bottom 10th percentile of faculty salaries on our campus, if I read a recent memo correctly.) Google’s digitization of books directly affects benefits to folks like me.

There is understandable concern that a surfeit of digital information (like this blog!) may make the printed world obsolete.  If so, part of the reason will not only be because an appetite for reading deeper scholarship has been lost – the incentives to write such works are also fast eroding as well. Google is not the only culprit — but it is contributing to shifts in support for scholars.

Comments to “Good for the reader, iffy for the authors

  1. Digital will not make the printed word obsolete, it will still remain. I hope authors get all credit that is due them, of course.

  2. I don’t think printed information will ever become obsolete, even with the success of Amazon’s Kindle or the internet in general. Services like Google Books certainly have some advantages for readers, but they can’t replace sitting at the beach and reading a book or similar. Each to his own, but I personally always buy books instead of reading them online. The overall experience is totally different, while watching a movie online may be ok, reading a book in front of the monitor is just boring.

  3. I think fiction will always be safe, with the printed word remaining in one way shape or form, however reference and non fiction will be eaten up by new technology

  4. You should write for royalties, you deserve it. And “lucky to break even” is terrible! Google is always going to be a Good Guy/Bad Guy.

  5. Yes, digital distribution can help authors to get more readers and readers to find necessary resources faster. On the other side, it affects readers’ reading practice and authors’ benefits. Everything has two sides. Thank you!

  6. Thanks for your decision. It will be advantage for reader.
    Mostly I search the book from Google that has more information. Then I will search the book name in the Library site. But mostly is not available in the library. If it has a digital file, we don’t worry about this.

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