Another shot at shelf life

Publishers delighted as Google draws eyes and buyers to forgotten volumes

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / October 3, 2009

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The publishing industry has been roiled over the plans of Internet search giant Google to scan millions of books and make them searchable and available through its website, but some publishers are confirming the company’s promise: that it can bring to light books that otherwise would be nearly forgotten.

Take “The Great Crash 1929,’’ by John Kenneth Galbraith, first published in 1955 and now out of print - one of thousands of books on the backlist of Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Normally, Galbraith’s book would have faded from public attention. But recently, it has been rising in visibility on Google Books, a chart that was still a half a century away when the book first appeared.

It turns out that when the global economic crisis erupted in late 2008, Internet users went searching for information about previous crashes, which led them to Galbraith’s book, the entire content of which is now searchable on Google. And right next to the search window: a half dozen sites, like Amazon, where the book can be purchased.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt couldn’t be happier with the exposure.

“Google is giving some of our backlist books a whole new level of visibility,’’ said David Langevin, the publisher’s vice president of digital business development. “It’s keeping them in the public eye.’’

While controversy has been dogging a $125 million class-action settlement to allow Google to proceed with its plans, one part of Google’s book operation is popular with publishers. The Google Books Partner Program has signed up virtually all of the best-known book publishers, who participate for free, including prominent Boston firms like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and The MIT Press.

By scanning copyrighted titles and making them searchable on Google, the program has increased the visibility of thousands of books.

“The benefits of partnering with Google Books for us are huge,’’ said Gita Manaktala, editorial director at The MIT Press in Cambridge. “It has increased the discoverability of our books dramatically.’’

Google’s partner program has been overshadowed by the proposed settlement regarding “orphan books,’’ titles that are believed to be under copyright but whose ownership is difficult to ascertain. After hundreds of protests were filed with the federal court that is supervising the settlement, and the Department of Justice criticized the deal as a cause for “significant legal concern,’’ US District Judge Denny Chin last week granted a request from Google and groups representing authors and publishers to postpone an Oct. 7 hearing so the agreement can be renegotiated.

But there are millions of books for which the copyright is well known and that are carefully managed by publishers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has 6,000 books in print, David R. Godine, Publisher, has 700 books in print, The MIT Press has 3,500 titles in print, all under copyright. The vast majority of these can no longer be found on bookstore shelves.

These are the titles that are eligible for Google’s partner program. Since the search engine launched the program in late 2004, more than 30,000 publishers in 80 countries have taken advantage of it.

When a partner publisher submits a book, Google scans the full text, making each word a possible result of a search. “Every word on every page is like a billboard online,’’ said Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google.

The majority of publishers in the program allow Google to preview 20 percent of each book. Google monitors Internet traffic patterns to prevent users from logging in multiple times and cobbling together the entire contents of a book.

Google also provides links to the publisher’s online bookstore, if there is one, and a half dozen other online retailers, like

Partner publishers get weekly reports from Google detailing the number of times that a book’s content is viewed. For many publishers, these “book views’’ have been rising steadily since May 2007, when book search results were added to the standard search results.

Langevin said that Galbraith’s “The Great Crash 1929’’ generated “zero’’ views for July and August 2008. In September 2008, as the collapse of Lehman Brothers caused the US economy to start teetering, book views rose to 628. By October, the views rocketed to 22,897, as Internet users started searching for words and concepts that were well represented in the book, although the number of views did subside later.

Langevin said that sales of Galbraith’s book also spiked during the peak months.

MIT Press’s Manaktala said she noticed that views of the publisher’s books increased dramatically after universal search was implemented. “What surprises me is that pretty much every one of our 2,600 books on Google gets viewed every week,’’ she said.

Daniel E. Pritchard, production coordinator at David R. Godine, said certain titles are well positioned for exposure on Google: “Anatomy of a Typeface’’ by Alexander Lawson frequently shows up in search results when someone looks for an obscure typeface on Google.

Such free promotion has made believers out of Google’s Boston partners. Pritchard said Godine now routinely uploads a digital file of every new title to Google as soon as the print version is published.

Langevin said Google Books is now a fundamental part of the firm’s book marketing plans.

“It’s really a great deal,’’ said Manaktala. “We could never afford to create all this exposure ourselves.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at