Publishers are keeping a wary eye on Amazon.com's new initiative: digitizing nonfiction titles to create an online database that can be searched by keywords. The plan, first reported about in the New York Times in July, is seen as a way to draw more traffic to the Amazon site as it competes with search engines such as Google and Yahoo.
Most publishers contacted by PW are going along with the project, although many have deep concerns about the effort. "They're a major customer so we want to accommodate them as much as we can," one head of house said, adding that "some parts make sense and some are scary." Another publisher said he agreed to cooperate to a limited degree, noting that "we'll be watching it arm-in-arm with our attorneys."
Publishers cite three major concerns about the project, dubbed Look Inside the Book II. Many are worried about security issues, noting that despite Amazon assurances, by digitizing a book that will be hosted in another company's file, the chances of piracy increases. Another concern is that rather than increasing the sales of books, as Amazon suggests, the project will cut into sales. Under the plan, consumers will be able to browse about 20% of a book's contents. If Amazon was really interested in only promoting book sales, one publisher said, why didn't they just add a few more chapters? Publishers fear, for example, that if people can find a particular recipe online, they won't buy the book. As a result of that concern, several publishers told PW they have not given Amazon permission to include cookbooks, travel guides and scholarly and reference books in the program. Even one publisher who thinks additional browsing will spur sales said she "wouldn't put up any real reference works."
The third concern, and one shared by the Authors Guild, is that publishers don't have the contractual right to let an author's work appear on the site without the author's consent. "Amazon is asking for rights we're not sure we have the right to give," one publisher acknowledged, predicting that it will probably take a lawsuit to decide the legal question. Paul Aiken, executive director of the Guild, said a review of publishers' contracts makes it clear that publishers need author approval before allowing Amazon to post what is in essence an excerpt.
Publishers expect the program to roll out soon, although Amazon had no comment on any aspect of the project.