SA books go online

Google “boarding school” and the search results might include a few pages of text from British author Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co, but it will be another year before pages of Spud by South African author John van de Ruit appear.

Publishing group Naspers is currently scanning South African published books into a digital archive, which it hopes to release as a consumer project in early 2009. It aims to have tens of thousands of books available electronically by then, says project manager Johan van Tonder.

Before that date, however, Naspers will be teaming up with Sabinet, which currently provides its clients with electronic access to digitised text. Sabinet users will be able to access several thousand of the books that Naspers has already digitised in July this year.

Naspers is currently building up its archive of books, gaining access to new texts, scanning them in and developing its website. The scanning takes place in Cape Town. The project goes by the name of Dili, short for digital library, according to Van Tonder.

After about a year of ruminating over the project, Naspers division 24.com launched it officially in November last year. The publishing group hopes to digitise the total volume of South African published books, which it estimates at about a quarter of a million titles, not including reprints or multiple editions.

“We expect to be working with some very valuable jewels,” says Van Tonder. He would not say how long it takes to scan books in, explaining that it is an “operational recipe”.

Yet he laughs off concerns that his secrecy is related to a fear of competition. He maintains that there is no competition because it is a very expensive procedure requiring “deep pockets” and also relies on a unified approach and partnerships with a range of players in the publishing industry.

One of the key concerns around digitising books has been over copyright. Google is currently scanning in books from libraries in the United States and Europe that internet users can search online. Its actions have invited lawsuits from authors and publishers accusing the internet giant of copyright theft.

Van Tonder says that although Naspers owns the project, it is working with several established publishing houses to build the archive. He says he cannot reveal their names at this stage.

Naspers asked an international copyright expert to draw up the contract and, Van Tonder says: “Our instructions were to make this as inclusive as possible.” They have also encouraged rights holders of books to contact 24.com to “explore opportunities”.

“We are not in the business of giving books away for free over the internet,” he says. When the consumer product is launched next year, a user may pull up a link to a scanned-in text when they enter a word or combination of words into a search engine. The link will give them access to the relevant text and the user will be able to interrogate it further.

At some point, however, the consumer will have to pay for greater access to the material. Van Tonder emphasises that what is different about the Naspers project and other projects like it around the world is that it is experimenting with different platforms to access the scanned-in texts.

Internet users may be able to access the texts as library members. Naspers has a partnership with the University of Pretoria library and is talking to other university and public libraries about developing partnerships.

Alternatively, a person who discovered the text through an internet search may be able to download the book or have it printed and delivered to their address. Van Tonder says that Naspers is deciding the extent to which it would impose digital rights management mechanisms, which might prevent a user sharing or printing a downloaded file.

A user might also access the text by ordering it from an online store, such as Kalahari.net. The book could be printed and sent to them. Van Tonder says that even where books are out of print, ordering a book in this manner should not accrue any extra charge or take more time than for a book that is in print.

He says that publishers currently only exploited about 10% of their commercial catalogues and the remaining 90% are out of print. The project hopes to bring older books and out-of-print books into wider circulation by digitising them. The University of Pretoria, for example, discovered that digitising older books increased their usage by about 75%.

Naspers has encouraged people to notify them if they are in possession of books that are not readily available and preferably if they have duplicate copies of books because they may not be returned.

The project should have no problem digitising books in indigenous language because the process effectively involves taking photographs of book pages, says van Tonder, adding that it may be difficult to search texts on the predominantly English platforms.

The archiving project also opens up possibilities for authors who want to self-publish. Van Tonder describes the process as “disintermediation” because it allows authors to publish without the assistance of an intermediating publishing house. He says that publishers often reject manuscripts for publication because they are considered risky or do not meet their publishing standards.

The process of digitising books should not be viewed as a threat to the traditional publishing industry, Van Tonder emphasised, saying that publishers overseas had discovered that it did not erode the sales of their physical product.

“In South Africa, we don’t have to convince anyone. Everyone accepts that the landscape has changed and they are keen to be a part of it,” he says.

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