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Books Online: The Fee versus Free Battle Begins
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Posted On November 21, 2005
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Now that all the busy book digitizers have done enough to create what anyone would call library-size collections, they have begun to deliver the full text electronically and to reveal how they plan to "monetize" their investments. Instead of just using its Search Inside the Book postings to encourage online purchases, Amazon.com will soon deliver "any page, section, or chapter of a book, as well as the book in its entirety" to consumers under two payment plans. Random House plans to offer its books digitally at a price. In the "keep it free, or at least free to the user" camp, Google, which has just changed the name of Google Print to Google Book Search (http://books.google.com), has opened its vaults and started delivering public domain books in full, as well as the "snippets" of copyrighted books connected to book purchasing outlets or library collections. Microsoft, which announced a commitment to digitizing 150,000 books as part of its MSN Book Search commitment to the Open Content Alliance (OCA), has named The British Library (BL) as the source of the first 100,000 books. Information professionals seeing this explosion of book content are already evaluating the impact of the new content and the opportunity to integrate and enrich their existing services.

"Show Me the Money"

In 2001, Amazon began digitizing books for its "Look Inside the Book" program, which evolved into "Search Inside the Book" in 2003. Both programs allowed users to identify books they might want to purchase in print. According to Amazon, from its initial 120,000 books, the program has evolved until half the books Amazon sold in the U.S. last year have full-text versions with Amazon's Search Inside program. This year, the company expanded the service to its subsidiaries in the U.K., Germany, France, Canada, and Japan.

Sometime in 2006, Amazon will launch full online access to books from its digitized collection under two pricing plans. Amazon Pages will allow purchase of online access to all or portions of books; Amazon Upgrade will allow customers who buy a print book to add online access for a set fee. Currently, Amazon cannot identify how many of the hundreds of thousands of books in its program will be available for online reading. The company is busy making arrangements with copyright holders, particularly publishers.

According to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, the goal is to "make the world's books instantly accessible anytime and anywhere." John Sargent, CEO of Holtzbrinck Publishers, a participant in the program, stated: "It is important for the publishing community to explore new business models for digital delivery that compensate publishers and authors fairly."

Amazon itself became a publisher of sorts earlier this year when it launched Amazon Shorts (http://www.amazon.com/shorts), a collection of digital-only, short-form literature (short stories, one-act plays, personal memoirs, alternate chapters and scenes to established stories, etc.), each priced at 49 cents. At its launch, nearly 60 established authors participated in Amazon Shorts.

Under the new payment programs, Amazon will place text into account holders' Digital Lockers. The Amazon Shorts program already uses the Digital Lockers, as do other Amazon services, e.g., streaming media feeds of tunes or video from pre-ordered digital entertainment. So far, the terms and conditions for publisher-approved access to books have yet to be decided, according to the Amazon representative. She expected the terms and conditions to vary from publisher to publisher and even from title to title. However, she also stated that the Digital Lockers do offer "perpetual access" to registered Amazon account holders.

The price for access must also be arranged with publishers or copyright holders. At this point, the company estimates that a typical price for Amazon Upgrade access to a $20 book might run about $2. The price of Amazon Pages will be set by the copyright holder, just as with a print book, according to the representative. The company does not plan on introducing ads into the paid-view content, but the Amazon representative did state: "Never say never." As of now, Amazon does not have any plans to institute institutional access, e.g., to textbooks for a classroom of distance learning students or to librarians licensing content, but the representative expects the company to respond to all kinds of feedback from customers after the new paid access programs launch.

One other point emerged in discussion. Experts estimate that 80 percent of books in copyright fall into the "orphan" category (i.e., in-copyright but out of print). Since many standard publisher/author contracts include a clause that lets the right to publish revert to authors if the publisher lets the book drop out of print, I asked the Amazon representative whether authors holding copyright could join the Search Inside the Book program and have Amazon digitize their publications. She indicated that the company would work with any copyright holder. Authors entering such a program would then, it would seem, no longer have to share any royalty payments with publishers. On the other hand, once a publisher adds a book to the Amazon—or any other—digitization program, they argue that the book has become permanently "in print."


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Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

Email Barbara Quint

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