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Digital Fatigue
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Digital Fatigue
Jeffrey R. Di Leo, Editor and Publisher (bio)

The days of mourning the death of the printed book may finally be drawing to a close. After ten years of electronic euphoria in the book world, we may be seeing some signs of digital fatigue.

This does not mean though that the musty used bookstores and soulless chain retailers that have slowly but steadily disappeared from our towns and cities will soon reopen. It would take nothing less than a complete collapse of the Internet to derail the dominance of book shopping online. The prices are too good and the selection too vast for the bricks and mortar bookstore to be effectively anything more than a showroom for books purchased online.

Still, the number of independent bookstores in the United States has risen over the past eight years, not decreased.

In 2009, there were 1,401 independent bookstore companies in the United States with 1,651 different locations. Over the next seven years, both the number of companies and the number of locations have increased every year—increased to the point where in 2016, there are 1,775 independent bookstore companies in the United States with 2,311 different locations: more than any in the preceding eight year period. So, while the chains like Barnes & Noble and Hastings may be struggling or worse, the independents are on the rise.

Nor does this nascent digital fatigue mean a gross reduction in the total number of ebooks. Each year thousands of new titles are released by both traditional and non-traditional publishers. Also, older titles are becoming increasingly available through initiatives such as the Google Print Library Project. Launched in December of 2004, three months after Google Print itself was announced as a joint program with some of the major presses in the world, the Library Project was announced as one with some of the major libraries of the world. The following year Google Print was renamed Google Books, which over ten years later has become a major repository for ebooks.

Still, the Google Books project is a poster child for the fatigue of the digital book revolution. Ten years ago, Google aimed within ten years to have publicly available through Google Books all of the world’s books. Its completion would mean that Google Books would have scanned all of the world’s books and that they would all be completely available online to the public—at no cost.

To date, though Google Books contains an impressive 30 million volumes, most of the titles are inaccessible or only come through in snippets of text. To get a sense of the size of Google Books, consider that the Library of Congress contains around 37 million volumes. But the failure of the Google Books initiative has little to do with the size of its collection, which is already impressive, or people tiring of using digital books. Rather, the issue was one of how to deal with copyrights, use permission, and, ultimately, compensation to authors and publishers.

In 2002, Google was scanning everything under the sun thinking that everyone would be happy with the idea that all books would in time be freely accessible to anyone with digital access. After years of haggling, a settlement was reached in 2008 with authors, publishers, and Google to make the collection available to the public for pay. However, in 2011, the 2008 settlement was thrown out by a federal judge. The task of sorting out the copyright issues was then handed to Congress, who to this day has not yet sorted them out.

If you are curious as to how far Google was from its aim of digitizing all of the books in the world, Leonid Taycher, a software engineer who worked on the Google Books project gave a precise figure in 2010: 129,864,880. So, assuming that the programs written by the Google engineers were somewhat accurate in their estimations of the total number of extant books worldwide, Google Books is about 100 million titles away from their goal of 130 million.

The failure of Google Books to achieve their goal of scanning and making all of the world’s books available online aside...