Amazon started it. Google followed, as did Microsoft and Yahoo. They're all creating searchable online databases of books. Do traditional publishers feel threatened? Absolutely. Some have sued. HarperCollins, though, is fighting back with its own database, the boldest step yet toward making books on paper an anachronism.
"In order to set ourselves up as the 21st-century publisher," says Jane Friedman, HarperCollins's president and CEO, "the most important thing we could do was to protect the rights of our authors by creating a digital warehouse." That's another way of saying, "Eat or be eaten." The idea had been kicking around for two years--until the publisher figured out that letting others scan its books for free couldn't be good for, well, selling books.
So Friedman moved to digitize her back catalog of 20,000 titles as well as all future books. The idea is that Google and other engines will find it more expedient to point readers to HarperCollins's database than constructing their own. More than that, a proprietary database frees Friedman to experiment with online sales. "Anytime somebody is searching for something and a book is presented to them, we feel there's an opportunity to sell that book," she says. And millions of trees can breathe a little easier.