Will Google “retire” Google Books too?

A few days ago I received an email message from Google; or, to be more precise, from one of its many children, the one named Google Affiliate Network.  They were writing to let me know that Google now feels it has better things to do and will be closing GAN at the end of July.  They did not mention being sorry.  One of our regular advertisers pays us through GAN, so both of us will now have to move someplace else. A new and unexpected job has been added to my hopelessly long to-do list.  I will survive; but it makes me grumpy.

Google has been doing this sort of thing a lot lately.  Quite recently, Google Reader was similarly “retired” (that’s the word they used with GAN),  and iGoogle was retired a few weeks before that.  In fact, there is a long list of products that Google has launched (or bought), ballyhooed, grown bored with, and closed.  The editors at Slate even maintain a virtual graveyard where you can visit the Google family burial plots and leave flowers on the tombstones of the “retired” products and services you mourn the most.

All of which inevitably makes me wonder when the bell may also toll for Google Books.  Until recently that thought would never have crossed my mind.  Google always seemed like some rich uncle who could afford anything and always arrived for holidays with extravagant presents for everyone.  Cost was never an issue. He always grabbed the check .He did it because he could.  That’s just the way he was.

But now I see that sometimes uncle wants something in return. Its not just money, and not even gratitude and market dominence will always be enough.  At least that’s what seems to have been the case with Google Reader, which will leave a huge vacuum in its wake.   It’s hard to imagine that it could have been such a drag on the P&L that it needed to be killed.  If it had been a venture-backed start-up, with comparable traffic and market share, it could  surely have been sold for eight or nine figures.  It could have made money if it wanted to.  It was valuable and loved.  But Google did not even care to sell it.  Apparently it lost interest because it decided that RSS feeds were just too yesterday to bother with any more.  They were no longer cool, or hot, or a challenge.  So they are going to nail it in a coffin and put it in the ground.

It had not occured to me that Google might be fickle.  Until now.  And I probably wouldn’t think twice about it if the only things at stake were browser tools and internet utilities.   Making our vast printed heritage fully accesible to a digital future is, however, something altogether different.   The thought that this massive and essential project may be in the hands of a fickle steward has now given me pause.

So I have to ask, what happens if Google decides it has also become bored with old books?  They are, after all, the most thoroughly “yesterday” of all content media.  The idea of digitizing and indexing the holdings of most of the world’s major research libraries seemed breath-taking a decade ago. Now it seems merely necessary and inevitable.  The thrill and audacity of the project are now long past.  The innovation is done.  The glory has been claimed and spent.  All that remains is the slow and tedious execution, accompanied by a swelling chorus of  disatisfaction with the shoddy results.  And, of course, the expense.

I might be more optimistic if I believed that Google’s founders had originally understood the nature of the thing they wanted to create; that they had understood not just how it should be built, but why.   But I don’t.  Sergey Brin’s own defense of Google Books, published in a 2009 Op-Ed article in the New York Times, makes clear what a naive stranger he was to the world of libraries and out-of-print books.  Several  quotes from that fascinating piece could be called up as testimony here, but my favorite must certainly be this:

 “Today, if you want to access a typical out-of-print book, you have only one choice — fly to one of a handful of leading libraries in the country and hope to find it in the stacks.”

So, clearly, he didn’t have a clue.

Until it is retired I will, of course, continue to use Google Books and be ever thankful for the blessings it bestows.  But I do not expect to have it around for long; and I doubt, in the end, that it will matter.  The great march of digitization will still proceed. The work will be done regardless, and it will, in the end, be lead by people and institutions who understand the importance of what they are doing. They will not get bored.  I do love Google Books now, but will not regret it’s demise.

And neither, I suspect, will Sergey.  He has his own plane.