Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is Google book search a good or bad thing for writers?

Last week I created a "Special Features" section on this blog and helpfully included a "Writers' Tools" link, only to realize I'd written exactly one post indexed that way. So, I'm gathering up info I've meant to share—and to put somewhere that's multi-accessible for my own purposes—and will attempt to post regularly on writers' tools until the section gets plumped up.

I would call my relationship with Google Book Search (GBS) a hesitant love affair, at best. And yet, since I've started using it to find potential entries for my quotes about creative women blog, I haven't been able to "quit" it—and can't imagine quitting it anytime soon. To put it briefly:

• I love that I can search in almost any book ever published for whatever search terms I throw into it. Through a search for "women and creativity," "women and writing," and variations of those terms, I found the books, Word: On Being a [Woman] Writer and Sleeping with One Eye Open, which I never would have found in my local library (or known to find through an Amazon book search). In fact, Sleeping with One Eye Open inspired a post for this blog and a fan letter to one of its editors, Judith Ortiz Cofer, who wrote me back.

GBS offers full and limited previews of some books, snippets of others. With even just "limited preview," I've been able to read through sections of books and decide whether I want to further pursue an author, which for me these days means, mostly, obtaining the book via interlibrary loan from my local library. I am tapping into the richness of a universal library for free.

I also can't think of any other tool currently available to writers that allows them the potential to search for phrases and terms that have already been published in books. Maybe you think you've come up with a fantastic sentence in a short story, but worry that it's something from memory and not newly inspired. First, you'd want to search it on Google, which will pick up phrases on blogs and web pages, then search for it on GBS.

Here's an example: I mentioned googling the phrase "inner Julia Child" in my post about writing in a vacuum-less world. I tried the phrase in GBS and the results showed it was also mentioned in the book, The Fun Book for Couples ("Discover your inner Julia Child with a series of in-home cooking lessons a deux") and the July 2005 issue of Cincinnati Magazine.*

Writers can also use GBS for background research, edification and vanity searches. For example, I have learned more about feminist writers from searching for creative women quotes than I could have in any other way except maybe taking a college course; and, I plugged my name into GBS just now and found that it remembers the little magazine I published, the grant guide I edited, the poem I published in Kalliope.

• But I hate the idea that people will be using GBS instead of going to a bookstore and browsing (and buying) books. I worry that Amazon and GBS are killing the neighborhood bookstore and even the chain bookstores, and that public libraries will be diminished when people can search for what they want from their home computers.

I'm annoyed at the idea that given the possibility of searching through almost everything that has ever been written, I will be less likely to attempt to write something new, and maybe some writers will even give up writing when confronted with everything at once that has already been said.

And I am especially incensed to imagine a time when writers stop getting paid for almost anything they write and that we all, in essence, become bloggers. If no one is buying books (except libraries) and everyone else is reading books/text via GBS, the publishing industry may grind to a halt. Of course, on the bright side, Google supposedly is paying publishers for what they put in their database, so this may be the new model of publishing in the near future.


For the full agreement and information on what Google Books accesses and will access in the future, see the page on Google Book Search Settlement Agreement.

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