Last week's announcements by Random House and Amazon. com about their pay-per-page-view plans for books online were greeted with guarded support from the industry and are seen by many as only the first step in formulating how publishers and authors will earn money from online book content. And even as the industry is digesting those announcements, later this month AOL will officially launch a program designed to get more consumers to use its search functions by adding a significant amount of book content.

The AOL Coaches program will incorporate material from a large selection of self-improvement authors throughout the AOL network with four different levels of author involvement. Over the next year, AOL plans to sign up 12 to 15 authors to take part in its Interactive Workshops. The workshops will feature five to eight interactive elements that will allow authors to demonstrate the material in their books.

A second level will include original material, including interviews with authors and video segments. Jennie Baird, executive director of AOL Coaches, said she hopes to have up to 50 authors participating in this aspect of the program. AOL will also license book content, including excerpts, from about 150 titles next year. The final part of Coaches will be a directory listing that could include as many as 350 titles by the end of 2006, Baird said.

There will be no charge for authors to participate in any part of Coaches, although Baird said the company is looking for authors who are good communicators and who can invest some time in creating programs. The initial Coaches program is being limited to the self-improvement field—diet & fitness; love & sex; kids & family; wellness; money; and business & careers. The objective, Baird said, "is to make AOL the online destination for self-help content."

Users will be directed to the Coaches materials in a number of ways, including a link on the AOL Welcome page. Using certain search terms (like diet) will also bring up Coaches content. Each page of Coaches will include a link to enable users to buy the relevant book. "The link will take users to wherever publishers or authors direct us," said Baird.

The Coaches Interactive Workshop will kick off later this month with Jake Steinfeld, who will be promoting I've Seen a Lot of Famous People Naked, and They've Got Nothing on You!: Business Secrets from the Ultimate Street-Smart Entrepreneur. As Coaches moves forward, Baird hopes that publishers will view AOL "as a regular part of an author's book tour."

Specifics, Please

The overwhelming response to the Amazon Pages program from publishers and authors was relief that the e-tailer has created a program that respects copyright, but there was some skepticism about how quickly things will move ahead and at what price. Amazon said Pages will debut next year, and in an interview, company chairman Jeff Bezos declined to give a more specific timetable. Addressing publishers' concerns about who will control the pricing, he said that it would be the publishers themselves. He said while most general titles will probably sell for a few cents per page, other types of books could be sold at higher prices. "There is no one-type-fits-all model," he said.

No publishers have signed on to Pages or Amazon Upgrade, although Amazon said it is in discussions with a number of houses. Bezos said he expects Pages to launch with a variety of products next year.

While Amazon is likely—but by no means certain—to be the first Web company to offer online views for a fee, it will not be the last. Google has been talking to publishers about creating its own fee-based service and, from the publishers' point of view, the more players the better. Perseus president David Steinberger said he's anxious to see a marketplace where digital content can be accessed and purchased in a variety of ways and offered by a number of companies. Simon & Schuster spokesperson Adam Rothberg said S&S "has been in conversations with all different players in the digital content and retailing arena."

Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild, said it is important that publishers and retailers experiment to find the best ways to sell content online. He said the Amazon model "shows that online content has a value and can't just be appropriated."