Follow up on Dismantling the Public Sphere
Want 'War and Peace' Online? How About 20 Pages at a Time?
By Edward Wyatt
Correspondent for The New York Times
November 4, 2005
In a race to become the iTunes of the publishing world, Amazon.com and Google are both developing systems to allow consumers to purchase online access to any page, section or chapter of a book. These programs would combine their already available systems of searching books online with a commercial component that could revolutionize the way that people read books.
The idea is to do for books what Apple has done for music, allowing readers to buy and download parts of individual books for their own use through their computers rather than trek to a store or receive them by mail. Consumers could purchase a single recipe from a cookbook, for example, or a chapter on rebuilding a car engine from a repair manual.
The initiatives are already setting off a tug of war among publishers and the potential vendors over who will do business with whom and how to split the proceeds. Random House, the biggest American publisher, proposed a micropayment model yesterday in which readers would be charged about 5 cents a page, with 4 cents of that going to the publisher to be shared with the author. The fact that Random House has already developed such a model indicates that it supports the concept, and that other publishers are likely to follow.
The proposals could also become bargaining chips in current lawsuits against Google by trade groups representing publishers and authors. These groups have charged that Google is violating copyrights by making digital copies of books from libraries for use in its book-related search engine. But if those copies of older books on library shelves that have long been absent from bookstores started to produce revenue for publishers and authors, the trade groups might drop some of their objections.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, which filed a federal copyright infringement lawsuit against Google in September over its Google Print program, called the Amazon announcement "a positive development."
"This is the way it's supposed to work: to give consumers access to books and have revenues flow back to publishers and authors," Mr. Aiken said. "Conceptually, something similar might be possible for the Google program."
Amazon said yesterday that it was developing two programs that would begin some time next year. The first, Amazon Pages, is intended to work with the company's "search inside the book" feature to allow users to search its universe of books and then buy and read online whatever pages they need of a given book. The second program, Amazon Upgrade, will allow customers to add online access to their purchase of a physical copy of a book.
Jeffrey P. Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, said in an interview that he believed that, for a vast majority of books, consumers would be able to download, copy and print out whatever portions of the book they buy. But, he added, that decision would ultimately be up to the publisher or the author.
Google is working to develop a similar system, said executives at three publishing companies who were briefed by Google on its efforts. Using the Google Print site, readers would be able to search Google's digitized library of books, then buy either an entire book or the relevant parts.
A spokesman for Google, Nate Tyler, declined to comment yesterday on its plans, saying only that the company was "exploring other economic models, but we don't have anything to announce yet."
Mr. Tyler said Google welcomed the Amazon program. "Amazon is a valuable partner," he said, "and we link to Amazon so people can buy books they've found with Google Print. We're glad our users will have additional ways to access the books they've found using Google Print."
Google and Amazon would each seem to have some advantages over the other in the development of their programs. Amazon already has the credit card numbers of a large population of potential users of the service and is familiar to people looking to buy books and other goods.
Google is the first stop for most people searching electronically for anything. And Google has the potential to have a far greater collection of materials, given its program to copy digitally much of the collections of five major research libraries and make that content searchable on its site.
Currently, the Google Print program provides free online access to the full content of books no longer under copyright, but only limited viewing of parts of books that are still protected. Under the plans being developed by Google, publishers say, those older, copyrighted books could be bought in whole or in part.
"We've had conversations with both Google and Amazon over the past few months" about their search and purchase systems, said Richard Sarnoff, president of Random House's corporate development group. By creating a financial model under which the Amazon and Google programs could work, Mr. Sarnoff said Random House was "planting a flag, trying to establish some ground rules that we are comfortable with to create this new kind of commerce around book content."
The Random House model calls for consumers to be able to buy access to a book for, say, 5 cents a page for most books and higher amounts, like 25 cents a page, for cookbooks and other specialty publications. It calls for users to gain online access, though not to be able to copy or print the page. But "if consumers absolutely demand certain kinds of access," like the ability to print, Mr. Sarnoff said, "it would be important to provide that."
David Steinberger, chief executive of the Perseus Books Group, said he welcomed the new initiatives and believed it would be better for consumers if several companies developed these services, giving readers more choices and types of material available.
"This is a much more significant development than we saw during the Internet boom," when scores of companies were rushing to develop e-books - complete books that could be downloaded onto an electronic reader. Those plans were largely shelved as consumers found the electronic readers unwieldy, and the Internet boom collapsed. "This time," Mr. Steinberger said, "it looks like this really might happen."