Friday, October 31, 2008

Free papers - a threat to books?

First the Googleblast, then the announcement that the Christian Science Monitor is shifting online from April next year. Suddenly everything is digital. Or is it? In London one of the most successful media launches of recent years has undoubtedly been the free Metro newspaper. Such was its success that rival group News International decided it wanted some of that market, so it launched The London Paper which appears on week days in the late afternoon. Associated Newspapers, owners of Metro and the Daily Mail, saw this move as an attack on its Evening Standard which has had a monopoly of the evening newspaper market in London for years (indeed, it has been the only evening paper). So, as a spoiler, it in turn launched another free paper, London Lite which also appears on week days in the late afternoon.

The result of all this is that, at a time when everyone is talking about digitisation and newspapers moving online, in London we have seen the launch of three print newspapers. It becomes impossible to get off a bus without one or more of the ‘givers’ of these papers thrusting one into your hand. In fact, these people have become London characters in their own right, like something out of a 21st century version of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (please say you have heard of this man: I am discovering that all kinds of people have not. It is through his pages that you have detailed, eye-witness reports of what life was like in Victorian London).

Now, of course, these papers are all free, and must be adding to the assumption among the public that it does not need to pay for news. As a result, circulation among paid-for print newspapers is falling. The good news, I suppose, is that people still want to read. London is a massive commuting city and people love to read on the trains, usually in this order: Metro, their phones and, lastly, books (too often The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – at least, that’s on the trains going into Waterloo which sees a lot of people who work [worked?] in the City).

The worrying news for publishers is to consider whether book reading on trains is declining as a result of the rise in free newspapers and the increase in the use of mobiles. One would have thought it must have done.

As for Google, it’s na├»ve to say it, but wouldn’t have an apology from Sergey Brin have been good? Put simply, wasn’t Google digitising in-copyright books in the US without explicit permission? Hasn’t it now ‘lost’ this case (although, in a sense, also won because of the massive publicity for its programme)? Why didn’t it set up the Book Rights Registry straightaway?

One publisher who has been particularly vocal on this subject told me: “By having to pay the legal fees they are in effect apologising. We don’t want to rub their noses in it. This is a great victory for the Association of American Publishers and for authors. If this had gone to court, and Google had won, it would have meant that they could have done what they liked with intellectual property, which would have been devastating. If we had won, Google would have appealed and appealed until either they had won or publishers had gone bankrupt. They didn’t want to set up the Books Rights Registry but they’ve had to. When the dust settles people will see that we have protected our authors and shown that we cannot be bullied by the largest organisation in the world.”

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