Google's mission is to organise the world's information, but what effect is this having on the oldest information technology - books?
In the slow moving book industry there have been few seminal moments. In the third century BC, Ptolmy II of Egypt established his great library at Alexandria and commanded all visitors to the city to surrender their books to be copied by his scribes.
Around 1,700 years later Johannes Gutenberg revolutionised the document industry with his invention of moveable type for the printing press, allowing the first efficient, mass production of books and other pamphlets which could then be distributed across the known world.
Half a millennium later and now Google has stepped up to the mark with its audacious plan to bring books from print into the digital age. The Californian internet search and advertising giant is over two years into two pilot projects: one to digitally copy the collections of libraries, and another to allow users to search for, and order, any hard copy publication.
With estimates ranging from 40 million to 60 million books currently in print - and that's only in English - the scale of this mammoth project looms into view, although Google has in the past claimed it has the ability to scan 3,000 books per day. How it does this is somewhat mysterious: it originally used robotic arms to turn pages; now this process is apparently done by hand - particularly for older, fragile tomes. The project is conservatively estimated to have cost Google in excess of $100m so far.
That's a relatively small investment because the business case for Google is simple: if people are going to be either looking up data from books, or researching where to purchase volumes, Google can offer an internet portal to satisfy this demand and plaster it with advertising linked to its 40 million monthly users' billions of search queries.
When Google first unveiled its plans at the Frankfurt Bookfair in 2004, traditional booksellers trembled at the thought of competing with the Google behemoth. But the tables have seemingly turned with e-savvy retailers now looking forward to becoming involved because there is no fee for publishers to participate in Google Book Search. (Although they must pay to ship titles to Google). On the other hand the industry's traditional portals, such as ABE, Amazon and Alibris, charge vendors to market their wares online and add shipping costs to their prices.
According to Conor Kenny, who heads up landmark Galway bookstore Kennys - also probably the oldest online bookstore in the world - vendors are looking forward to embracing Google. "Put simply, the power of Google cannot be overlooked," he says.
The mark up for online vendors on book sales is around 35 per cent before handling. However, if purchased from, say, Kennys via Amazon, the huge internet retailer charges around 15 per cent on the sale.
For its part, Google says it is not taking a cut from booksellers, and claims it hasn't figured out how to generate revenue from the project. Yet.
One method Google could use to make money from its online book repository is to do an iTunes on it. That is, allow people to download digital texts, called eBooks, directly onto a dedicated e-text display medium, such as Sony's Reader - a tablet-like device designed specifically for reading eBooks.
What makes books different, and potentially more lucrative than downloading movies or music, is that Google only has to close deals with a relatively small number of global publishing powerhouses.
Where things get tricky, however, is in terms of copyright.
Jessica Powell is a spokeswoman for the Google Books project. She agrees with estimates that only a fifth of the world's books are fully within the public domain, and three quarters of all books have "unclear" copyright status. Thus Google's deals with American and European libraries, such as the Bodleian in Oxford, are vital to build up Google's book stocks.
"It's not just libraries', but random retailers' long backlist collections that can add value to this service," said Powell.
The thinking here is that Google will help make the back catalogues of hundreds of book sellers accessible, and therefore saleable. This approach is an extension of Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson's 'Long Tail' market idea, which puts forward the thesis that the internet provides unlimited "virtual shelf space" for any product, and satisfies a cumulatively increasing niche demand.
The prediction is that demand for products not available in traditional bricks and mortar stores is potentially as big as for those that are. Books, particularly out of print or niche interest editions, perfectly suit this theory as pages gathering dust at the back of an Athenian bookstore could be of great interest to a collector in Athlone, if only he or she could locate and order them.
However, the real test of whether this approach works will be if the various interests in the publishing world, from individual authors to the big publishing houses, continue to play ball and follow Google's line of thinking that making as much information available to as many people as possible is a viable business approach.
Copyright © 2007, ENN