In case anyone was wondering, the four most frequently used words in T.S. Eliot’s 1943 collection Four Quartets are “time,” “past,” “fire,” and “end.” It is this kind of information that can be found by using one of several new features recently added to Amazon.com’s “Search Inside the Book” function, launched in October 2003. A fully searchable concordance, an index of citations of other books mentioned in a given text, and a list of quirky statistics, including the years of formal education required to understand a book—14.2 in the case of the Four Quartets—offer readers even more opportunities to evaluate a title before buying it.
The new features, launched on the Web site in April, initially drew criticism from some writers and publishers, who were concerned about copyright protection, but increased sales for “Search Inside the Book” titles may have allayed those fears for the time being. While Amazon.com won’t release specific sales figures for the program, which began with one hundred-twenty thousand titles nearly two years ago and now has “hundreds of thousands,” the online bookseller did announce a 9-percent growth in sales of participating titles in the first five days after “Search Inside the Book” was launched.
“Customers really enjoy the fact that now they can sample some pages of the book, much the way they could in a physical bookstore,” says Bill Carr, vice president of digital content for Amazon.com. Carr stresses that the online bookseller develops the technology in close contact with publishers, including almost all of the big houses—Random House, HarperCollins, and Penguin, as well as university presses and smaller publishers, such as Soft Skull Press and Copper Canyon Press. Of course, Amazon.com benefits from any innovation that sells more books. Whereas Google Print, which was launched in late 2004 and seeks to digitize as many volumes as possible from publishers and libraries, earns revenue by creating more pages of advertising space, Amazon.com’s interest lies in customers purchasing books from its Web site, and also from learning more about customers’ buying habits. How many more books Amazon.com can sell by offering statistics about a specific title—there are 6,734 words in Four Quartets, for example—remains to be seen, but it is likely that more such esoteric features are on the way.
“We feel like we’re just really at the tip of the iceberg with these ideas,” says Carr, whose optimism is shared by many who foresee fully searchable personal libraries, in which readers could find a specific passage in a favorite novel without ever taking it off the shelf, or a digitized universal library available to all. Whatever the form, the resources that Amazon.com, Google, and other online search engines and booksellers are devoting to digitization promise to redefine the ways in which readers interact with books.
Doug Diesenhaus is the editorial assistant of Poets & Writers Magazine.