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Craig R. Scott, CG, is the President of Heritage Books, one of the few independent publishers of genealogical titles left in the United States. This week, Craig celebrated the fact that the Heritage Books Facebook page had reached 1,000 likes — a major milestone in this digital age.

But beneath that milestone lurks the dangerous reality of this digital age: that the publishing houses we as genealogists rely on for access to works we need for our research are in jeopardy. In this guest post, Craig explains why.

A Publisher’s Point of View

By Craig R. Scott, CG1

Genealogists greeted the announcement by the Family History Library that it would provide free lookups and page copies from its books with applause.2 The same enthusiasm is shown for the book snippets that appear on Google Books.

I can’t join in.

Because this sort of conduct, by libraries and by Google Books, will harm authors and book publishers to the point where authors will not write and publishers will not publish. That will harm us all.

In any year prior to the advent of the digital age, an author would take the financial risk of researching and writing a book and a publisher would take the financial risk of publishing it. There was an expectation that, during the life of the copyright, the author would be compensated appropriately based on the sales of that title, and the publisher would recoup its investment the same way.

Then the digital age arrived and it was determined that a person would be allowed to make a digital backup of that work for personal use. Today that has morphed into a library can make a digital copy and send it anywhere in the world without compensating the author of the work.

This is yet another instance of authors and book publishing being harmed in the long run. There is a difference between a library providing occasional copies of its holdings to patrons who search them out. But on the scale of the Family History Library, it constitutes a commercial enterprise that interferes with a book publisher’s ability to sell its titles. Authors expect to be compensated for their efforts. Thousands of titles, in copyright, available five documents at a time. Such a deal. Might as well close up shop and become a panhandler. There will be a better return on the investment.

It isn’t that authors and publishers don’t expect that some copying will occur. Many libraries offer lookups, and authors and publishers understand that when people to the library they are going to photocopy pages.

The problem here is that, while a library may recognize that photocopying the whole book is not fair use, that same library can make a digital copy of the same work and offer it to distant customers with some sleight of hand that says they will not offer it to anyone else at the same time.

In the days of interlibrary loan, books would physically travel and they would be unavailable for a period of time for other patrons to use. That time was important because, if it happened often enough, the library might purchase an additional copy based on demand. Now the travel is instantaneous. Why would a patron buy a book when you can always get a copy for free? Borrow it, hack it, copy it, have it forever. No compensation to the author for the work.

Understand that the copies being made now are not digital copies made by publishers; they are scans of books in copyright made by someone and then loaned to another. How many books do you loan? I loan a few out of my library, carefully, every year, hoping against hope that I will get them back. Digital copies are not quite the same, are they? What safeguards does the library put in place to ensure that the copyright is respected? The major deterrent to copyright theft in the past was how long it took to stand at the copy machine. Well, now someone has stood at the scanner for you.

It may be true, as The Legal Genealogist said, that “If all I want is one or two pages from five books, I’m going to a library, not a bookseller, so that – at least – isn’t going to have an immediate effect.” That’s not what’s happening here. Here, we have the library coming to you and hawking its wares without recompense to the author.

Other libraries are also undermining genealogical publishing of all sorts, by “improving access” to works by creating digital versions of books and periodicals. Apparently, the libraries believe this is fine if they are only accessible in the facility. Recently I learned that the North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal CD had been converted by the North Carolina State Library for use in house, without the permission of the Society. Now the society will suffer a decrease in sales.

And then you have Google Books. Heritage Books can be found on Google Books, with limited views. Rather than purchase a book, people camp on the site and download pages as they cycle through the limited views. Conversations with Google went nowhere. Finding a real person at Google Books is an improbable experience. Finally we just took all of our royalty-based books down from the site. At least that was our direction to them. Yet they will still occasionally appear.

The problem we’re seeing is that, in this Internet age, there is no respect for copyright (unless it is a publications house that has counsel or can afford such) and no respect for an author’s time and effort. And since the public does not cherish their authors, there is no hope. Digital access is here to stay, but the creation of new quality works will gradually fade as authors learn that there is no compensation or respect for their efforts in the digital world.

Everybody wants it free. Well, nothing is free. In the end we will all pay because everything has to be paid for by somebody.

And of course, genealogical book publishers will go the way of the gas light or the telegraph, no longer having a useful function in society having been replaced by the digital age.

This affects all publishers, but publishers of reference works more. To me, there is a difference between a novel and a reference work. A novel does not really have a shelf life that goes beyond the reading of it, except to read it again someday. A genealogy book is a life-time possession. Something that is referred to again and again. Something given to more than one family member to put their lives in the context of their family roots, trunk and limbs. To treat a genealogy book as just a “read” does not put it in the right context. Where most publishers look for the next great seller that will bring them millions, genealogical publishers look for enough profit to survive (although I can’t remember seeing that black color recently), or enough cash flow to keep the creditors at bay and survive to continue to serve the community that supports them.

You ask how the genealogical community can pay its fair share. My answer is that there’s no such thing as “fair” in a world where “fair” means “free.”

For nearly thirty-five years Heritage Books has provided materials useful to the genealogical community in their research. Today, with more than 4,900 titles in print, we have been on the verge of collapse for nearly a decade. We are just a gas light that hopes not to go out.


 
SOURCES

  1. Craig R. Scott, CG, is President of Heritage Books, an independent genealogical publishing company that produces nearly 5,000 titles including research guides, county histories, memoirs, county reference material, and individual family histories.
  2. See generally Judy G. Russell, “Getting that document from the FHL,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 29 Jan 2013 (http://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 7 Mar 2013).
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