As someone with a couple of books published, I've learned a lot about the business. The main thing I've found out is that if you want to get rich, you could do it quicker in terms of hourly wage by flipping burgers at a fast-food joint rather than writing books. For every multi-millionaire author like J.K.Rowling, Steven King or (cough, gag, cough) Barack Obama, there are thousands of folks who get a book published by a major house and still net only a couple of bucks. It is a brutal business.
There is a joy to seeing your words in print and holding a book in your hands that has your name on the title page. There is satisfaction in having your thoughts distributed to readers around the world even if they only number in the thousands and not the millions. There is reward which isn't necessarily financial.
At the end you possess two things, a contract and a copyright. The former is an agreement with someone to publish your work and administer the various distributions such as hard-cover, soft-cover, electronic, audio, foreign language, movie/TV rights, serialization, animation, comic books even. The latter is your establishment of intellectual property. Your writing is your work just like a painting, a sculpture or a house that you built. You own it.
I've got Amazon's wunder-Kindle. I love it. I read more, it costs less, it is convenient, and I like the free wireless connection for my book acquisitions. I've encouraged both of my publishers (Smithsonian Books and St. Martin's Press) to make my books available on Kindle. If and when they do, I will get royalties based on our contract.
Google is entering the market and they are taking a different approach. They are seeking to make "out-of-print" books available for their e-reader. I'm not sure if I win or lose in that event.
Here's some analysis and the issue isn't a simple one:
Justice Department Opines to Federal Judge on E-Publishing
Some points need to be emphasized here. First, "out-of-print" is not out of copyright protection. I own the copyright, the publisher owns the right to publish--even when they let the work go out of print. It seems that Google is infringing on the publisher's rights here.
Google's royalty plan, if it is as stated in the analysis, offers 63% of the electronic sales price to the copyright holder as royalty. That appears to exceed anticipated royalties if paid in agreement with the publisher's contract which means I would gain. The publisher holding rights to a work which they have let go out-of-print would apparently lose. Unless, of course, the Google e-sale price is well below what could reasonably be anticipated. Since Google has no up-front costs of publishing and only scans a work and then distributes it, they could really bargain chop the pricing. Then I lose as well.
I've got a deep distrust of the Justice Department under this administration. The public policy emotional attachment of something like a "Free The Books" campaign stressing easy access to information denied the masses by the oppressor class of authors making "obscene" profits is all too apparent.
There is also the issue of big supporter payback which seems to underlie every action of the nationalization of American free enterprise. Google is a big player in every way. Congress loves to pander. The leanings of dependency oriented Americans seem to be toward expecting everything for nothing.
Someone is going to lose here and the way I see it, the only two players who have rights--the publishers and the writers--are the candidates. The smallest constituency is the weakest and we will suffer the tort.