Sixty-six years ago, a blind man sat in a library, imagining another library of astronomical size. He wrote: "Everything would be in its blind volumes. Everything: the detailed history of the future. Aeschylus's The Egyptians, the exact number of times that the waters of the Ganges have reflected the flight of a falcon.... Everything." That man was Jorge Luis Borges. The passage is from The Total Library, first published in Buenos Aires in 1939.
In the past 25 years, the publishing world has been molded by the retail environment. In the front of chain bookstores, you have endlessly revolving piles of the latest bestsellers; while in the back, a scattering of worthwhile books, spine out, hidden from view like teenage orphans in a roomful of sluts.
This is an interesting time in which to address the subject of author's rights in the 21st century. The libraries of Stanford, Michigan, Harvard, Oxford and the New York Public Library are to be scanned. Books out of copyright, but in print; books out of print, but in copyright; books out of copyright and out of print; and books in copyright and in print are being scanned—indiscriminately.
Now imagine if the digital library resulting from this process were to be made available, as naturally it could be, to students at Oxford, who would be given passwords, presumably, to access digital shelves. And of course, these cards would have to be made available to professors and graduates as well— including those now studying law at Harvard and Stanford, and to undergraduates there; and to affiliated graduate students of quantum critical phenomena in low-dimensional systems at the University of Tokyo, and to its alumnae, and perhaps also its alumni.
In the United States, a few years ago, if an author's recently published novel sat on a library shelf, was borrowed and read five times in the course of the year, the financial loss to an author was negligible: retail price of book $25 × 15% royalty × 4 copies (the library paid for one) = $15. But what if that novel became popular all of a sudden, and was assigned to 2,001 students? Then the loss to the author would be $25 × 15% × 2,000 = $7,500. There are very few authors who'd like to mail that royalty check to Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Is that what's in store for us all?
A few years aback, when Napster introduced free downloads, the music industry went into a tailspin. Democratic rockers supported efforts to avoid avaricious record companies by downloading and transmitting music free of charge. But even anarchist rockers saw that in the course of little time, their larders would be cleaned—at which point up popped design genius Steve Jobs with a downloadable business model, with iTunes and the iPod. The music business had a future after all.
Google's digital initiative has brought authors and publishers up against a similar quandary. Recently, the Association of American Publishers brought an injunction against Google in an effort, ideally, to negotiate just the kind of business model the music industry had not prepared pre-Napster, a model that could simultaneously benefit authors, publishers and the public: a model which could prove wonderfully enriching to all.
Both Amazon and Google are involved in the search for new models. Many alternatives are being considered. And it's at precisely this decisive point in the development of our industry that leading agents and publishers should convene to develop working models for digital rights. In most areas, for the time being, perspectives should be aligned.
What does the Google suit mean? If it's resolved favorably, it means that in the 21st century we face an opportunity to create a digital library and retail environment in which a single copy of each equally retrievable book is placed on a table stretching infinitely before us—a digital library interesting authors deserve. No more rivers of Dan Brown blocking us from Shakespeare. No more mountains of Danielle Steel encircling Calvino. And proper payment for Borges.
Will quality prevail? Well, when the decks are stacked equally, I think it stands a better chance.