SAN FRANCISCO--An initiative in the works from the nonprofit Internet Archive to centralize the electronic distribution of commercially viable books could upend the publishing industry and declaw Amazon.com, an industry analyst said.
On Monday, the Internet Archive, which among other things has been working for some time to digitize countless numbers of public domain texts, showed the first public look at its BookServer project, an initiative its dubs, "The future of books."
Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle told CNET News that BookServer is about creating an open system that allows search engines to index books that are available from a wide group of sources. Effectively, commercial publishers, lending libraries and even individual authors would have a way to index their work and offer easy digital distribution under BookServer, Kahle said.
Kahle's timing is interesting. Also on Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported details on Barnes & Noble's $259 e-reader called the Nook, which will compete with Amazon's Kindle and Sony's E-Reader, a move which heats up the market. More interesting may be Google's announcement last week of its "Google Editions" store, an initiative aimed at offering digital editions of books from publishers with which it already has distribution deals. Google said that should mean about a half-million books would be available initially, either through Google itself, or through sites like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
But it seems the Internet Archive is thinking even bigger than Google.
Kahle said that he's been thinking about such a project since before the advent of the World Wide Web, but that the technology has never been ready. But that's changed over the last 20 years, he said. "We've now gotten universal access to free (content)," Kahle added. "Now it's time to get universal access to all knowledge, and not all of this will be free."
He explained that BookServer is built on the notion of a Web server, and that only a good indexing system is standing in the way of making all books digitally and easily available to consumers, whether they're using a laptop computer, an iPhone, or a Kindle.
Today, he said, publishers, libraries, and others usually turn to outsiders to build them an online distribution system, and that each of those systems stands alone and unindexable. With BookServer, the Internet Archive is hoping that for the first time, consumers everywhere will be able to buy or borrow any text they want while leaving control over pricing and terms of such distribution in the hands of the content owners.
"Right now, they're largely sitting it out or dying," Kahle said of publishers and libraries. "Publishers are not dictating the terms of the distribution of their work. They're handing it over to others...This puts them back in the driver's seat."
And while Kahle imagines that BookServer would by no means result in the end of bookstores or even online booksellers like Amazon, he hopes that publishers and libraries will finally be able to set up their own distribution systems to better compete.
Though it's early days for the BookServer project, which could take several years to complete, Kahle expects that users will first look for what they're looking for on a search engine, ideally something like the Open Library, the Internet Archive's own book search system. Once someone finds the title they're looking for using their search engine of choice, they would be redirected to the publisher's site if they want to buy the title, or to a library's site if they want to borrow it.
"It will be as seamless as buying from a single store," Kahle said, "even though they'll be buying from (a) distributed (group)."
To Thad McIlroy, an electronic publishing industry analyst, BookServer is nothing sort of "incredible."
"Each time (Kahle) moves in to open up the world, he has a big impact," McIlroy said. "Between (the Google Edition) announcement and (the BookServer) announcement, this changes irrevocably the landscape, and Amazon's shares should go down tomorrow."
McIlrory was exaggerating, to some extent, but it's clear that he believes that Amazon's dominance--both as a seller of physical books and a distributor of e-books--is in serious danger if outfits like Google and the Internet Archive are deciding to take it on.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"This effectively ends anyone's proprietary effort...to close off the system, as Amazon's been trying to do," McIlroy said.
Control back in the hand of publishers
One of the most important aspects of a project like BookServer is that it could, once again, give publishers the upper hand in selling their books.
"The way Amazon is really screwing up the market, creating expectations around (lower) prices, is calamitous," McIlroy said, "and very, very damaging to publishing."
Essentially, Amazon is undercutting book prices and forcing publishers to make harder choices about which books to publish and how to edit them, he suggested. But now, with both Google and the Internet Archive on the job, Amazon may ultimately "be defeated by these two."
And while Google certainly has the might to make a go of its Editions store, it has recently lost a lot of credibility in the book world with the fallout over its Google Book search project. By comparison, McIlroy said that Kahle and the Internet Archive are seen almost universally as altruistic and selfless.
"You couldn't point to anything that hurt anyone," McIlroy said of the Internet Archive's various initiatives. "Everything (Kahle) has done has been truly helpful. But now, to step into this digital book situation is really fantastic. And yes, Google, they have a real credibility problem of their own making, and (Kahle) does not have that."