MSN Plays Nice With Book Publishers

Opinion: Microsoft and Google seem to have switched roles, with the software giant offering an opt-in approach for online book search.

MSNs announcement of a plan to digitize 150,000 out-of-copyright books came as no surprise, given that Google has been embarked on the same sort of project since last year. But, where Googles work has been controversial and has taken the company into court, Microsoft is going to great pains to be perceived as the good corporate citizen and is even part of a group creating in open document format for library archives.

Microsoft says its MSN Book Search initiative is intended to help answer the "other 50 percent" of all questions posed to MSN Search that the service is today unable to answer. The 50 percent figure is a candid admission for Microsoft to make and roughly parallels my thoughts about the services success rate. I am not at all sure, however, that adding books will change the percentage terribly much.

To be copyright free, a book must have been published prior to 1923 or purposefully dropped into the public domain. I dont know about you, but I dont find many answers to my search questions in such material.

Fortunately, pre-1923 texts arent the real focus of anyones efforts. What Google and MSN and, yes, even Yahoo, are doing is a dress rehearsal for making all books the next form of content widely available online.

Book publishers, however, were horrified with the Napster experience and, given their tight margins, are very cautious that anything they do might cause their titles to be traded like so much pirated music and movies.

/zimages/2/28571.gifCan Authors Guild halt Googles book drive? Click here to read more.

Microsoft is trying to really court the publishing industry and hopes to find a way to calm its fears, according to Danielle Tiedt, general manager of content acquisition for MSN Search.

She told me that one of the major differences between the Google and MSN is that Microsoft says it is offering libraries and other collections the opportunity to opt in to its program, while Google is opt-out. MSN is already looking at rights management solutions that might work for making books available online, as well as the user interface, business terms, and other aspects necessary to make book search a standard part of its results.

There are hopes that a series of standard agreements can be reached between online services and book publishers, thus reducing the complexity of the necessary arrangements for the two industries to work together.

As a side note, it will be interesting to see if Google somehow manages to capture the "bad boy" role traditionally reserved for Microsoft, while Redmond gravitates to the "warm and cuddly" status that Google has enjoyed. Too early to tell, but I keep wondering whether Google wont eventually find a way to alienate its users over privacy and other concerns.

/zimages/2/28571.gifDavid Coursey wonders, "Whats it all about, Google?"

As for the book publishers, Microsoft hopes its test program will result in some arrangements to bring more current material online. Books are an interesting content type, in that many of todays titles are little more than long magazines, with about the same shelf life. Other books, especially textbooks and reference titles, have very long shelf lives.

How long a given book remains available at retail ranges from a few months to forever. Many titles could easily be made available online once it no longer made sense to offer them in physical form. This would make online sales—and these will be sales in some form or fashion—essentially "found money" for the book industry and authors.

At the same time, putting a book online prematurely could lead to the pirating situation the music and movie industries are forced to battle. In MSNs case, the need for reference material capable of answering questions might, at least initially lend itself to posting current but not "new" titles online, perhaps assuaging publisher concerns.

As Ive said, I am not as wild about book searches as some people seem to be. I remember many hours spent in the library scouring the shelves for answers to school assignments and information for papers I was writing. Books are great for that purpose and online books would be better.

But that supporting research, where the user has a need for lots of information on a particular topic, doesnt seem to me MSNs goal. If Microsoft wants is to provide answers to specific questions posed to MSN Search, then books may not provide the crisp results users desire. I am not saying books dont belong online, but there is a difference between in-depth research and quick answers to user questions.

When books come online as search results, Ms. Tiedt expects publishers and online services to extract per-page, per-chapter, or some other fee from searchers. This might be paid by the users themselves or could also be subsidized in some way.

How this works out will depend on the sorts of deals the search services make with publishers, who actually hosts and sells access to the information, and the dynamic nature of the search business itself.

Its still much too early to even guess how things will work out, but the availability of search results that include books is an exciting prospect for anyone who needs rapid and easy access to information. I only hope that everyone, publishers, search services, and users will be able come to terms that work for all of them. This will take time, however, and many experiments may be necessary before the Internet becomes the ultimate library.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

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