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"Search Inside the Book": Full-Text on Amazon
Posted On November 3, 2003
Tapping into over 33 million pages from over 120,000 non-fiction and fiction titles supplied by over 190 publishers, has launched a major online access service to the full text of publications. Mainstream press covered the launch of the new service from the giant online bookseller, discussing issues of how-to-use-it to problems of copyright conflicts. Electronic book suppliers, such as ebrary and NetLibrary, reacted with press releases. Speculation also focused on whether the move would draw more traffic to Amazon as an information provider, competing with Google. As with the older "Look Inside the Book" service initiated by Amazon late in 2001, the "Search Inside the Book" service relies on Amazon's scanning of printed books.

Publishers contributing to the new service include Wiley, Time Warner, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Chronicle Books, Publishers Group West, McGraw-Hill, HarperCollins, etc. Other publishers have taken a watch-and-wait approach. Even those involved in the program have usually only offered a selection of books. Reference book publishers seem the most concerned about possible negative effects on sales, since the information readers want from their publications may only take up a page or two, e.g., recipes, hotel recommendations, etc.

The new full-text searching feature is built into the regular Amazon search process. Search results will now combine books that have the words in the bibliographic citation as well as in the text. If the term appears in the text, users will see a short keyword-in-context (KWIC) excerpt with a link to more references in the book. Clicking on the link will retrieve an index of term appearances in the book. Clicking on a particular term appearance will retrieve a page image from which a user can navigate backward and forward a few pages.

Only registered Amazon users can view the images by entering a user name and password, though all users can receive lists of books with KWIC listings. Once searchers start viewing pages, they can also search for other terms of interest within the book. The Look Inside the Book feature still works and supplies title pages, tables of contents, and pre-selected excerpts illustrating book content. The latter feature also covers a much wider range of books than the new Search Inside the Book feature. For more information, go to Amazon's "How It Works" page (

The announcement of the new service did not please everyone. Some publishers adopted a watch-and-wait policy toward the new service, worrying about whether it might inhibit sales, particularly of reference works. The Authors Guild issued a warning to its members and has already approached publishers, arguing that author contracts do not give permission to publishers to join the program. Some publishers have agreed to remove a work at an author's request. Amazon has stated that it will leave such issues to the publisher. The warning by the Authors Guild to its members did admit that the program would probably not threaten fiction titles and might promote sales of others. ("Midlist and backlist books that are receiving little attention, for example, may benefit from additional exposure in searches.")

Upon testing the new feature, staff from the Authors Guild managed to print out "108 consecutive pages from a bestselling book," though they admitted the process, though "quite simple" was "a bit inconvenient." A week later, the Authors Guild reported that Amazon had disabled the print function on the new feature. Whether standard screen control software could get around such print restrictions, the Authors Guild announcement did not address. The Authors Guild has had a thorny relationship with Amazon over the years. Responding to Amazon's used book service, the Guild recommended members "de-link" their Web sites from Amazon.

However, a week after launching the new service, Amazon reported that sales for full-text searchable books outpaced books without the feature by 9 percent. Dozens of new publishers had also contacted Amazon to discuss joining the program. Searchers who might find full-text retrieval pulling up too many hits can still use the power searching mode to restrict searching to titles, authors, subjects, dates, etc. ( Amazon-aholics might also note that the version of a book chosen for image scanning may not be the least expensive version available.

One element of Amazon's promotion for the new feature did not ring completely true—the claim of originality. Full-text book searching has been available for some time from such services as ebrary, OCLC's NetLibrary, even Project Gutenberg and other public domain book sites. And those are just the more current and Web-oriented examples. Earlier examples in traditional online also exist. However, to offer it at this scale with such a promise of future growth and at no charge to the user or the user's institution, does promise a new level of access for "library-quality" material—not to mention, more revenue for Amazon.

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

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