Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Good for the reader, iffy for the authors

By Dana Buntrock

I agreed to make my first book (published nearly a decade ago) available on-line with Google books.  I considered it only fair; Google allowed me to check a lot of quotes for my second book (forthcoming) with lightening speed. My earlier book was, however, still selling when I made the call.

Digital distribution of resources is a boon to many readers not able to access wonderful collections like those on our campus. I know this because I experienced it myself; while I was in Japan on a Fulbright in 2006 and 2007, I used many on-line materials available through JSTOR, Google, and other sources.  Baker, our campus-based research support, tracked down and sent me digital copies of hard-to-find articles on more than one occasion as well. Friends at the University of Tokyo, some working on relatively obscure topics (e.g., architecture in Tajikistan), were simply blown away by what I accessed on-line.

But producing a book has high costs (and they seem to just get higher). Thousands of dollars, in my case, for photography. Add travel in Japan's rural pockets over more than a decade - far more costs than all those grants were able to subsidize. I'm slogging through the index, now - also, today, often paid for by the authors. I do not write for the royalties, but I will be lucky if I break even - and today, the costs of scholarship are not balanced by our salaries. (Even without the costs of furloughs, disciplinary differences mean that I am apparently in the bottom 10th percentile of faculty salaries on our campus, if I read a recent memo correctly.) Google's digitization of books directly affects benefits to folks like me.

There is understandable concern that a surfeit of digital information (like this blog!) may make the printed world obsolete.  If so, part of the reason will not only be because an appetite for reading deeper scholarship has been lost - the incentives to write such works are also fast eroding as well. Google is not the only culprit -- but it is contributing to shifts in support for scholars.