Sunday, September 17, 2006

Brill-Google symbiosis

Last Thursday, I was the guest of Brill, the scientific publisher headquartered in Leiden, the Netherlands. The company held an open house meeting with two subjects on the slate: Google and China. The company is a stock listed company in the Netherlands with a turn–over of 25 million euro last year and with a regular revenue stream, delivering an average of more than 10 percent in returns. The focus of the company is on humaniora and international law. The company publishes some 100 journal titles with 500 issues per annum. It has series of major reference works such as encyclopaedias, annuals and bibliographies. Well known is the Encyclopedia of Islam. I heard first of the reference work in 1970, when I became an editor humaniora for the Dutch language Great Spectrum Encyclopedia. An in 2005 they published some 500 new monographs. It is an impressive record. But I did not come to the Open House meeting as a shareholder, but I was eager to hear about Brill’s involvement with Google.

For this item, Google had flown in Jason Hanley from London. He started with the mission of the company: Google is to organise the world’s information and make this universally accessible and useful. This statement sounds rather idealistic and ambitious and it is. If you look at the universe of books, you will find out that only 5 per cent of books are in print, 75 per cent have an unclear copyright status (copyright reverted back to author or heirs or the publisher was sold) and 20 per cent are in the public domain; so more than 90 per cent of the books published are hard to access.

The Google Book Search program consists of the Publishers partner program and the Libraries program. Brill is partner in the Publishing Partner Program since 2004. Google scans the books published by Brill and make them searchable; the browsing however is limited. Part of the pages of the book can be read and a portion is always hidden at all times, while the print, save and copy facility are disabled. And if people want to buy the book they are linked to the Brill site. Books are also sold as e-books through channels such as Netlibrary, eBrary and e-Booklibrary. Advertisement yields incremental revenues; but advertisements are optional and not mandatory. Jason Hanley indicated that Google had spread confusion in the Google Print program, making not clear that a publisher would partake voluntary and could not be forced; besides authors could refuse to be in the program.

For Brill the Google project is a big project. Brill publishes annually 550 new titles and has a backlist of 6000 books in print. Brill has a legacy of 5.000 books out of print. This legacy is rather large as Brill recently bought IDC, which has 100 million pages of rare books. Presently Brill has 500 titles live and every new book is loaded up immediately after publication. In the meantime the out-of-print list and the backlist will scan and brought online. Presently Brill is presently preparing a shipment of 3.500 books to California in order to have them scanned and mounted.

For Brill the Google Book Search Program has been a marketing and sales tool. So far it has brought 3 million page views from half a million visitors. Some 10.000 clicks through Google search (50 percent) and Google Scholar (5 percent) link to the Brill site for more information or for ordering books. Income from advertisement revenues is not significant.

Jason Hanley got a barrage of questions after his speech. Most prominent was: What is the catch; the publisher gets his books scanned and mounted as a free service? Jason referred back to the mission. He mentioned that a publisher can always withdraw from the program; so far no publisher has done. (If a publisher decides to leave he will not get the material which was scanned on the account of Google). In fact the only risk for the publisher is not to join. Another question was whether Google will add material presently on microfilm (IDC has an extensive microfilm archive of 200.000 titles). Jason, who is an ex-Elsevier employee, got also the question about the impact of the Google Book Search program for scientific, technical and medical (STM) publishers. He could not say what the impact was. For Brill it means that its content gets discovered. And pressed for a comparison between Brill and Elsevier, Jason noted that Elsevier has signed up with Google Book Search program, but that the company has larger levels of hesitation. Besides Elsevier develops its own content tools and software. For Brill the Google Book Search program has generated revenues without investment; to the world the program has made the Brill books accessible.

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Blog Posting Number: 511

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