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Google opens dialogue with book publishers

At an event in New York, more than 300 people associated with publishing attempt to bridge the gap between print and digital books.

NEW YORK--To anyone who thinks digital content is a threat to the book-publishing market, Google wants to tell you two things: first, you're wrong; second, its Google Book Search product is the solution, not the problem.

But in the 21st century's new-media culture, print publishing is going to have to evolve, according to those speaking at the Google-hosted "Unbound" event held Thursday at the New York Public Library. A crowd of more than 300 people, primarily involved in the publishing industry, came to the event to hear speakers ranging from , Boing Boing co-editor and science fiction author, to representatives from major publishing outlets like Harper Collins and Cambridge University Press.

"The goal is to stimulate thinking, both your thinking and ours, on how these challenges and opportunities are going to impact all of us," said Jim Gerber, director of content partnerships at Google, whose presentation opened the day's events. Gerber reminded the audience that the opinions heard at "Unbound" would not necessarily be Google's own, but ultimately, the majority of viewpoints presented by the speakers and panels were more or less aligned with the Mountain View, Calif.-based search giant--including those expressed by members of the print-publishing industry.

The event was largely a response to Google's controversial Library Project and corresponding Book Search tool, which have met strong opposition from the publishing industry. At "Unbound," the tech-savvy authors, publishers and analysts more or less agreed that to grow and profit in an increasingly digital world, the publishing industry will have to expand its boundaries.

"We're in a period of tremendous change, and have to embrace that change," said Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of technical manual publishing company O'Reilly Media. "We as publishers have to become part of the new digital ecosystem that Google is working so hard to build."

Google had an even bigger stake in the event than just trying to improve the Library Project's image. The company has been trying to ink deals with publishers, in addition to libraries, that would make their content available through Book Search, but publishers have been skeptical that it will hurt their profits. But that's not the case, according to speakers at Thursday's event.

"No matter how you look at it, free e-books make commercial sense," Doctorow said in a speech describing his experience as a profitable author who has always distributed his books for free online under a Creative Commons license, in addition to selling them in bookstores and online marketplaces.

Fellow tech-savvy author and blogger , another speaker at the event, echoed Doctorow's opinion that making content available for free online and letting it spread virally is ultimately helpful to authors. "By putting something into the grapevine and having the word spread, people are going to respond and pay you with something really valuable: their attention."