Amazon's Bezos hits the books

As Google catches heat over its library plan, Amazon.com turns a page on its own offering.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
7 min read
Maybe it was just a matter of happenstance--though when it comes to Amazon.com and its always-precise CEO Jeff Bezos, very little gets left to chance.

But on the same day last week that Google put thousands of public domain books online, Amazon.com debuted programs that will let people read books on the Web.

In a sense, this is familiar ground for Amazon, which led the technology industry's move toward book digitization with its "Search Inside the Book" feature two years ago. As its name suggests, that offering let people search the text inside books.

But since then, a debate has raged about how to best protect copyright while extending electronic access to texts.

The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers are suing Google over its Google Print Library Project. The search company wants to digitize and make searchable online texts from the university library collections at Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, Oxford and the New York Public Library. The guild and association argue that scanning entire copyright works violates copyright law. Google says it is abiding by the "fair use" provision of the copyright law.

In an interview with CNET News.com, Bezos repeatedly hammered home the point that Amazon is working with the "permission and cooperation of the publishers."

Q: Could you tell us what your goal is with the digital book program?
Bezos: Well, we have two different programs: Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade, and they are very different. They're intended to complement each another. Amazon Pages lets you buy one page at a time, and we anticipate that the vast majority of pages would be a few cents per page.

With Amazon Upgrade, at the same time you buy the physical book, you also can buy online access...24-7, anywhere you have Web access.

Who decides the price?
Ultimately publishers--copyright holders--will get to make those decisions about how much each page costs. But for the vast majority of books it should be a few cents a page....It's kind of a complete unbundled approach: You can buy a page, you can buy a chapter, you could assemble your own text book....

Then with Amazon Upgrade you buy the physical book--at the same time you buy the physical book, you also can buy online access. Again, it will be a small incremental charge above the price of the physical book. We'll go ahead and ship the physical book to you the way we normally would. You'll instantly get access: It will be perpetual access, 24-7, anywhere you have Web access to that book online.

Consider the case where somebody has to buy a software programming book. If they're learning a new programming language, sometimes they want long reading sessions with that book, and the physical book may be ideal. But then once they start coding, they may want to be able to rapidly access code snippets and in other ways use that book as a reference, and so the Amazon Upgrade may be perfect for that part of their reading experience.

You mentioned the pricing might be a few cents per page for most of the pages. What's the timing on this?
Bezos: We will launch this next year, and at this time we're not being more precise about the date.

And why are you announcing this now? Is it any coincidence it's on the same day Google says it's added thousands of scanned library books to its search database?
Bezos: The reason we're announcing this now is that we have now had so many discussions with publishers about these two programs. We were not going to be able to keep this under wraps, so that kind of necessitated an announcement. Just too many parties know about it. Now, with respect to what we're doing, we really started working on this two years ago--the Search Inside the Book--you may be familiar with that...

Bezos: It's grown tremendously over the last two years. We've been scanning books every day for the last two years, and we continue scanning books every day. One of every two books we sold in the United States is now in the Search Inside the Book program. That has been done the whole time from the beginning until now--and it will continue to be done with the permission and cooperation of the publishers.

How are you going to handle the copyright issues that have been plaguing Google and its projects?

Bezos: We don't talk about other companies because this is a matter of practice. Let me just more generally answer the question and say our approach for Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade is exactly the same approach we use with Search Inside the Book--which is, the copyright holder is in charge. They get to decide whether they want to participate in these programs or not, and we work with the publishers cooperatively to get their permission to put their books in this way.

Google, Yahoo and the Internet Archive, MSN projects--is your effort going to be competing with them directly? Or will there be any sense of collaboration?
Bezos: You have to think about three different categories of books. There are in-print books, there are out-of-print books, and then there are out-of-copyright books.

The copyright holder is in charge. They get to decide whether they want to participate in these programs or not, and we work with the publishers cooperatively to get their permission.

Now, the out-of-copyright books are the only ones that are in the public domain and so anybody can scan those books. We can do that too, and you don't even need to charge--I don't need to charge customers for them because they're already in the public domain so they can just be offered for free.

The in-copyright books, whether they're in print or out of print--in both cases we want to continue as we have been with Search Inside the Book. So we'll keep working with the publishers to add to that number. Search Inside the Book only allows customers to view a sample of the book, but with Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade, they'll be able to do continuous reading, look at any page that they want to look at and not be restricted in the same way that they are with Search Inside the Book. The technologies are very similar and so (is) the approach we take of working cooperatively with the publishers.

So, if Yahoo and the Internet Archive are allowing their database to be searchable, will you incorporate that database? Will there be any melding? Work with others?
Bezos: I think we'll have to wait and see on that, but you know, in the public domain, I don't see why not.

And so you're not going to discontinue Search Inside the Book?
Bezos: That will continue as it is. These are new programs that will go in addition to Search Inside the Book.

Search Inside the Book did seem like it was pioneering in this effort of scanning and digitization. Did you feel any heat at the time when you released that?
Bezos: When we released Search Inside the Book, we had to deal with a lot of work in terms of explaining the program, making sure that people understand it. That's why we've had such success with it over the last few years. We just work with publishers and get their permission.

But couldn't someone figure out a way to search the keyword terms and then go to the front of where the pages start and use a word at the front? It might take a long time, but...
Bezos: Well, also there are limits on how much in Search Inside the Book you can look at, so when you go in and look, you can go forward two pages and back two pages, and then even if you search again and find, you know, the third page, there's still a limit for how far forward and back you can go, and that program is not designed to be online access for the book, it's designed to let people kind of crack open the book and look at it and help them make a purchase decision the same way as they would in a physical store.

If I were to go to a physical store I might, you know, open up a book, look at a few pages, read the first page, skim through it, look at the index, make sure the terms that I was interested in are in the book--those are the kind of things that Search Inside the Book is designed for, and that's how it's been used. We have a lot of data on how customers are using Search Inside the Book, and it's being used in exactly the way that we've designed it for.

So is there a way you can quantify whether allowing them to Search Inside the Book is actually leading to more sales?
Bezos: Yes there is, and we have released those figures to the publishers.

But not to the public.
Bezos: We recently launched it in Germany, for example, and what we see is about an 8 percent (sales) lift when a book goes into Search Inside the Book.

Can you make any extrapolations as to how much of a demand there will be for Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade?
Bezos: I don't think so because this is a very different program. Amazon Search Inside the Book is about sampling, and Amazon Pages and Amazon Upgrade are about giving people complete access for online reading. So I think we'll have to wait and see.

But no printing and no downloading or copying? Is that correct?
Bezos: No, I expect the majority of books will have (some) copy (and) print capabilities, but again, our point of view on this--and we feel very strongly about this--is that those are the kinds of decisions that the copyright holder gets to make about their book.

How many publishers and entities are you working with or talking to?
Bezos: We're not releasing the full number....