BEELINE TO THE FUTURE: Google's eBookstore and the Universal Library

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

Humans have sought a universal library for centuries. Before it burned down, the library of Alexandria was the first and probably best attempt at housing the world’s books in one place. Scholars have estimated that the library contained between 30 to 70% of the scrolls at the time, a percentage that no library since then has come close to replicating.

With the advent of digitization and computer storage it’s technically feasible to fulfill the dream of a universal library. You could store the world’s books on redundant servers that would fill part of a room, and in the near future you will be able to put all the world’s books on a hand-sized reader. The obstacle to the universal library today is not technical; it’s practical and legal. Scanning is expensive and time consuming, and copyright law limits which books can be reproduced and displayed.

Since 2004 Google has been scanning the contents of dozens of libraries and putting them online in a searchable database. Google’s ambitious goal is to organize all the world’s information, a true universal library uniting the Internet and a massive database of the world’s books.

We’re a long way from the universal library because of the small number of books available online. The books Google is scanning are largely books from research libraries and many texts are left out, especially popular magazines and paperbacks. Although much of the canon is available, most books are not; however, over time though more and more of the history of literature will be digitized and indexed. Today virtually every new book published is available digitally, and Amazon and Google are slowly scanning more and more of the backlog.

The digitization of the world’s books is an important task that will enable new forms of research as every word in every book becomes interlinked through search engines, indexes, and hyperlinks. The Google book service is already a handy research source. Harvard University researchers have studied the 15 million or so books that Google has scanned and is creating a new science that they term “culturomics.” They are attempting to study human culture in a rigorous way, examining the frequency of words and sets of words, which they claim create a cultural genome ( ).

As the online library expands and more readers use it, we are going to see new ways of reading and responding to texts. For example, most nonfiction contains an index and a bibliography. An online book allows readers to click on the subject terms in the index and find other articles and websites about the topic. Readers can click on links to books in the bibliography, and then either read the book (if it’s out of copyright) or purchase it if it’s in copyright (as well as preview sections for free). Readers can follow the footnotes in online books, hopping from link to link as they now surf the web, making books living connected sources of information, not isolated objects.

In addition, when a lot of people connect to a particular link, it is rated higher by search engines, so clicking is not a passive activity. Readers and writers can share bookmarks, annotations, and bibliographies. Coleridge wrote extensive and informative annotations when he read a book; so much so that friends would lend him books so that he would write marginalia in them. In a shared universal library intellectuals like Coleridge could post their marginalia. Less learned readers will also share their annotations and bookmarks, but one could quickly learn which comments to pay attention to and which to ignore.

Commonplace books are a long, rich tradition in Western culture. When books were scarce many readers kept a collection of quotes and bon mots from their reading, especially books they borrowed but could not afford to buy. The web allows readers to cut and paste quotes from a variety of texts, and make their curated collections available for all to review online. Gary Westfahl recently published a commonplace book of SF quotes, Science Fiction Quotations. The book Brave New Worlds is a historical dictionary of SF terms with quotes illustrating the meaning of the terms. These types of projects could be easier to compile and publish with an extensive online library.

Since this is a science fiction publication, I want to discuss how an online library would affect the genre. I would like to see a massive fan project to scan all the SF pulp magazines and paperback books and place them online. I’m not sure if copyright laws would permit that project, but if the project was nonprofit it might be possible. Once a search engine indexed those books and magazines, worlds of research and reading would be opened up. A scholar or fan could search for the word “android” and discover the dozens of magazine stories that used the term, uncovering how it changed in meaning over time and charting the various authorial approaches to the meme. You could search for every SF text that used the term “singularity” and then compare the authorial attitude to the concept. Which writer or writers originally coined terms such as “meat puppet” and “Artificial Intelligence?” How have “matter transmitters” and “hyperspace” been portrayed throughout the genre’s history? How many positive portrayals are there of “insectoid” aliens? You could search thousands of texts for these terms rather than relying strictly on memory to follow up themes and tropes.

When more books are made available online and fans start hyperlinking different book sections, the online library becomes extremely useful. Reader generated tags and links will allow fans to label the SF novels of a particular subgenre such as “steampunk,” or “military SF,” or “Far Future,” or books that deal with particular topics such as Dyson spheres or nanotechnology. Many of these categories and coinages fascinate SF writers, fans, and researchers, but change too fast, or are too esoteric for librarians to use. A site such as Repubibot could curate a collection of books that would appeal to libertarians or conservatives, or could tag numerous books that contain free market economic concepts. A fan could create hyperlinks between a dozen books that contain insectoid aliens as a way to explore the conflict between individualism and conformity in SF. I’ve addressed many of these issues in more detail in a previous article, “The Cloud and the Networked Book,” which you might want to consult ( ).

Review of Google’s eBookstore

Google recently opened its eBookstore, which falls well short of the ambitious goal of organizing the world’s books. At the moment it’s not even as good as the Kindle store; however, it does have the potential of offering an enormous collection of books. It currently contains around three million titles, and when legal issues are resolved it may have as many as 50 million, which would be a massive library and a major force in the ebook market.

Right now it serves as a useful adjunct to Google Books, providing recent downloadable titles to supplement the older, free, and downloadable titles on the Books project.

One advantage Google has over Amazon’s Kindle store is that its eBookstore will reach users at the point of the websearch, which could make shopping for books more convenient and powerful. Let’s say you search Google for information about remodeling your bathroom; the eBookstore will show up in your search offering books about remodeling that you can purchase and read online.

All the Google books you download will live in a cloud-based library that you can access through a browser or most ebook devices, including the iPhone/iPad, the iPad, the Nook, Android, or Sony Reader. The Kindle is missing from this list because it doesn’t use the standard ePub format that ereaders use. The Kindle may eventually be forced to accept the ePub format in addition to its propriety format because the Google eBookstore undermines one of the chief advantages of the device, which is Amazon's superior bookstore.

Another nice feature with Google books is that since Google scanned many of the books, you can read the scanned pages instead of the default scrolling text. Prices are competitive: $10 for most best sellers, reduced rates for less popular in-copyright books, and most out-of-copyright books free.

Both Android and iOS have dedicated apps that allow you to download books for reading. One good thing about this service is that if you use more than one device for reading it syncs your place and bookmarks.

I downloaded the iPad app for Google books and was disappointed. The app has no landscape orientation, which is my preferred way of reading on the iPad. The font will not adjust on scanned titles. It lacks most other important tools that the Kindle and the iBooks apps contain, such as bookmarking and notetaking tools. In time I’m certain Google will improve its ereader apps, but right now the Stanza, iBooks, Kindle, and Nook apps are better.

Buying books on Google is familiar to anyone who has bought an ebook in the last couple of years. Google provides you with categories, covers, lists of top-rated books, and New York Times best sellers. Google has partnered with independent booksellers, so you can buy books from Independent retailers like Powell's Books.

The Google eBookstore may eventually increase the availability of orphaned books. Orphaned books are books that are still in copyright, but publishers do not find profitable to keep in print. Since Google is scanning many of those books through Google Books, in time the ebookstore could sell those books for a few dollars, thus making them available to the public and making a small of amount of money for either the author or the author’s estate.

In time virtually no book need be out of print, a vastly different situation than today when only about 10% of all books are in print. This situation would allow books that appeal to the long tail to find their audience. Readers could also use Google Books social networking features to communicate with other people who have similar interests.

Google’s science fiction selection is, like the other major ebookstores, weak when it comes to older works. The Google ebookstore doesn’t have any novels by Pohl Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Samuel Delany, Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, Theodore Sturgeon, or Van Vogt.

A few major authors do have a lot of books on the service, but only writers that interest Hollywood. Philip K. Dick, who has been filmed extensively, has 20 of his novels on the bookstore. Asimov has ten novels on the service, including three foundation novels and I, Robot (which has been filmed), but none of his major singleton novels are included.

Other than that the selection varies from writer to writer and publisher to publisher. Five books by Fritz Leiber reside on the service, but Robert Heinlein, clearly one of the most important SF novelists, only has four novels available. Only one collection by Harlan Ellison is available despite the fact that he has a number of books available on the Kindle.

The selection for recent authors is better. There are 20 or so books by Greg Bear and Orson Scott Card respectively. Seven novels by William Gibson are available, each reasonably priced at $6.99 or $8.99. The selection of less popular contemporary authors is poor: Thomas M. Disch is only represented by his adaption of The Prisoner. It may be the publishers’ fault rather than Google’s that many books are not available, but the selection is still disappointing.

The site contains a larger number of critical works on science fiction than you would expect, but many of those books are designed for reference libraries and instead of the price being say $110 for the print version you pay $92 for the ebook, not a very attractive offer. You’re better off getting the book from a local college, and if you’re not a student then you should order the book through interlibrary loan from the local public library.

Over time the selection will get better, but as someone who has recently started reading ebooks, I feel none of the ebookstores can currently replace print. The dream of the universal library is held back by copyright law, sluggish, apprehensive publishers, and the sheer expense and work of digitization.

The bookstore’s search is standard Google. If you search for “Thomas M. Disch,” Google searches for his name in the texts as well as in the metadata, so you get a hit from any book that contains those three words on a page, resulting in an enormous number of hits unrelated to your topic, or books that merely mention your author or a similar name. The problem is magnified with titles. You can get millions of results, just like a Google Internet search, and most of them useless.

After the Google ebook store gives you general results, you can narrow the search to "Books by author, or Books that mention author," a function that actually makes the service useable. There is an advanced book search, which will allow you to search by author, title, language, publisher, publication date, subject, etc. Drilling down into the collection with more precise searches makes it more useful.

Google has not come close to realizing its lofty goals; in fact, it currently lags behind the Nook and Kindle bookstores. I’m sure the Google bookstore will get better, but right now it is not as complete as the Kindle, nor does its app work as well as its competitors. Despite my misgivings, I would describe the Google bookstore as a good first effort that will improve over the next few months. In the long run I’m cautiously optimistic that Google will change the ebook market for the better; it creates competition and forces the other services to improve; furthermore, Google’s deep pockets and embrace of the relatively open format of ePub make it a formidable presence.


Robert Bee is a freelance writer and full-time librarian in New Jersey. He can be reached at