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So What Do You Do, Brandon Badger, Product Manager for Google Books?

The Google Books project lead discusses the scandalous settlement, emerging e-publishing technology, and Kindle's shortcomings

By Noah Davis - December 9, 2009
Brandon Badger has books on the brain. As manager of the ambitious and controversial Google Books project, the Stanford graduate and speaker at's upcoming eBook Summit, is coordinating the effort to scan the world's literature and make it available online. Over an outdoor lunch at Google's Mountain View campus, Badger spoke with about the hidden difficulties of the project, the possibility of a Google e-Reader, and whether we'll ever see Harry Potter on Google Books.

Name: Brandon Badger
Position: Product manager, Google Books
Resume: Dropped out of Stanford to start a tennis e-commerce store. Returned to school, graduated and started working as a software engineer at Semantic. Moved to Google and worked on Google Maps before transferring to the Google Books project.
Birthdate: August 16, 1977
Education: "I went to Stanford. I did a B.A. in economics and an M.A. in computer science, class of 2003."
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday New York Times: Sports
Favorite TV show: "Probably Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Guilty pleasure: "Tennis, I play a lot of tennis still."
Last book read: Freakonomics

Google Books is a huge project. Have there been any challenges that you didn't foresee?
What makes the Google Books project difficult is the scale. It's very easy to scan a single book that's maybe a certain type, a certain size, it's a paperback or a hardcover, and it might be easy to transcribe that. But it's very hard to do that for all the world's books, for tens of millions of books. And so there are a number of engineering challenges that the team here has accomplished, starting with the original scan stations that were built, working processes to get clean photographs of the book pages, and then there's a lot of computational work to take those images and process them so you get a clean, flat image that looks good on your computer screen. Then from there, it's not enough just to have the images of the book pages. We really want to be able to extract out a digital representation of the book, so like an HTML version or a plain text version. That's really important for a lot of the mobile devices that you see now, where you have a much smaller screen and you want to be able to re-flow the text on the screen. Extracting the text is a difficult challenge to do in an automated fashion.

There's also a lot of difficult process issues that need to be worked out. It's a big undertaking to go and partner with these large organizations, like you've got to meet with the libraries. There's a lot of working with book publishers and explaining how our program can help them market their books to users and how our tools can help them make their books more discoverable. With any individual challenge, [it] is easy to fix on a small level, but it's very hard to fix its scale so that, with an automated process, you can do it for tens of millions of books.

What's your role as product manager in the whole thing?
That's a good question. Google is very loosely structured; there's not a whole lot of top-down management. As a product manager, your role is to inspire the team, to really define what the product goals are, work closely with the tech lead and the engineers on the project management itself -- so breaking down the project into manageable chunks and then following through on the schedule to make sure we're meeting our goals. You're the outward face for the product as well, so there's a lot of interacting with partners. We have publishing partners, but also library partners, device makers and reading application partners. And then also interfacing with the various other entities within Google to make sure that our products work well together. So working with the search team so that Google Books is able to blend well into the Google search results product.

"The Kindle is a great device, but [...] if some other company comes out with a really sexy e-reader, you can't really go buy and upgrade to that because you can't move your books with you from your Kindle to that next generation device."

So what does a typical week look like?
Usually about half my day is in meetings either with external partners or with our engineers. As far as the schedule itself, it's very flexible here at Google, so you might have engineers coming in later in the morning but then staying later. It's basically whatever works best for your family and your life situation. In general though, people work pretty hard just because they're passionate about what they do. I'll typically put in a normal day at work, go home, hang out with the family, play some tennis or some golf, but oftentimes checking email at night -- also because it's a global company we have remote teams, so I'll be interacting with a team that might be in Taiwan or another team in Zurich. It's sort of a 24-hour schedule in that sense where you're getting email requests and questions all throughout the day.

You mentioned earlier about meeting with the book publishers. Obviously there's this lawsuit that was just settled. How closely are you following that?
Yes, I follow it closely. I definitely do a lot of Twitter searches for Google Books or Google Books settlement. The settlement is a complicated issue, and in my role on the books Web site in the front end, really I'm just focused on building the best user experience I can with the set of data that I have. So we have a lot of books that are in the public domain, a lot of books that are in our partner program where these are in copyright books where the publisher allows us to give 20 percent preview as a way of giving exposure to their books. My attitude is that if and when the settlement comes through, that will just provide me with a wider set of data to further improve the product. Basically, it fills in that gap between the older public domain books and the newer books that are in print.

"I don't think it would make sense for Google to build a dedicated reading device in that I don't think we know exactly what the future holds for which types of reading platforms users will want the most."

Are you working at all on the e-bookstore?
I am. We have announced that we'll be selling digital books. The name for that is Google Editions of digital books. We hope to build a system and we feel like users want a system where you can buy the book and you're buying basically the rights to view that book. Then you can have lots of different devices that are compatible and can view that book. So the idea is that if you're on the train and you have your Android phone or your iPhone, you can be reading there; we're keeping track of what page you're on. And then maybe when you get home, you have a dedicated e-reader device that's compatible with this system, and then you can continue right where you left off. We feel like this provides a lot of value to users and also provides a lot of value to book publishers in that it's another avenue for them to sell their digital books. We're also partnering with book retailers, so stores that traditionally have sold print books -- we want to work with them and help them also sell a digital offering that we can run on our servers and support them in selling books.

One of the obvious kinds of outflows from that would be an e-book reader. Would Google ever consider getting into hardware?
Our feeling is that we're better off focusing on digitizing books, as many as we can, and on offering the software and the platform that powers this e-books solution where users can purchase their e-books anywhere and read their e-books anywhere. When you start storing your books on the cloud, it's not acceptable for the service [to be] down, [and] you can't access your book: You're right at the end of the book and you're about to find out whether Voldemort dies at the end of Harry Potter and it's like '404 Error,' you can't find your book. So I think Google plays an important role in supporting the infrastructure that can make this possible.

I don't think it would make sense for Google to build a dedicated reading device in that I don't think we know exactly what the future holds for which types of reading platforms users will want the most. We don't necessarily want to pick one device and bank on that. Nor do we want users to be locked into one device, as well. For example, the Kindle is a great device, but as you spend more and more money buying Kindle books, if some other company comes out with a really sexy e-reader, you can't really go buy and upgrade to that because you can't move your books with you from your Kindle to that next generation device. With every book that you buy, you're sort of locking yourself further and further in with Amazon. So I feel like we can play an important role in keeping the books marketplace open. I think it's in everyone's interest if there's an eco-system where you can buy a book but you can transport that book with you so that when the next great device that we've never even thought of comes out, you can buy that device and sync down your books and read on that new device.

And Google takes a small percentage every time?
And we take a small percentage every time, yes.

So are we ever going to be able to find out if Voldemort dies on Google Books?
That's a good question. We're definitely working with book publishers. We have millions of public domain books but we certainly don't want to be in the market position of all the old books. We also are working with our publishing partners so that when we start to sell digital books, we want to have all the latest and greatest books that you can buy from any publisher.

Last question: Where are you in three years?
Honestly I see myself still working on Google Books. I think this is going to be an exciting couple of years in the book space. As I mentioned, there's sort of a convergence of devices and content and interest from users that I think it's exciting that we'll have basically more reading which I think is good for society. I have a 5-year-old son who's in kindergarten and learning to read, I think it would be great if there were digital devices he could learn to read on, you could have text to speech, help him learn to read. You also think about all the children in the world who don't have access to books. With digital books, the barriers are much lower for cost and transport, so it's exciting to me to think that a kid in some rural village, assuming they have Internet access which is becoming more common, can basically have access to all the great literary works that Harvard library has or a large bookstore in the United States would have. In that sense, I'm really excited to be working on Google Books.

Noah Davis is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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