Amazon generated quite a bit of media attention late last year when it announced plans for Amazon Pages, a program that would let consumers view parts of a book online on a pay-per-view basis. While Pages has yet to see the light of day—and many publishers remain unenthusiastic about the program—the retailer has begun publishing books through a different program. Through its Back in Print initiative, Amazon, with the agreement of the title's rights holder, will store a digital copy of an out-of-print or out-of-stock book in the database of its BookSurge print-on-demand division, and then print and ship the title when an order is placed.

Back in Print falls under the auspices of Greg Greeley, Amazon v-p of worldwide media products, who said the program aims to "help publishers find ways to keep books in print." Under the program, when Amazon finds an oop or oos title, it adds a link at the bottom of the page that reads "I own the rights to this title and would like to make it available again through Amazon." The link goes to a page containing information on the program and the necessary forms. Once Amazon verifies that the publisher or author does have the rights to the book, a digital file is stored in the BookSurge database. Publishers can provide Amazon with a digital file for a nominal charge, or Amazon will scan the book for a fee that starts at about $65. When an order is placed, the book will be shipped within 24 hours. The rights holder determines the cover price; Amazon sets its own retail price.

The ability to keep books in print through print-on-demand "was a big motivating factor" in Amazon's purchase of BookSurge last April, Greeley said. Amazon has been promoting the service through "conversations with publishers" and through the Web site. "We're excited about the future," he said.

Publishers and other rightsholders expressed excitement, but also some concern about where the effort could eventually lead. Agent Richard Curtis, who also founded the e-publishing firm E-Reads, noted that Back in Print "means Amazon is in the publishing business." He sees Back in Print "as a good use of POD" that could eventually lead to a host of fundamental changes in the industry. (Curtis speculated on Amazon's role in publishing's future in a PW Soapbox, Aug. 1, 2005). At its most basic, Curtis said, Back in Print could create more pressure on publishers to keep titles in print or force them to give rights back to authors who could use BookSurge or other POD companies to print their books. At its most extreme, Back in Print may be part of the development of a subscription publishing model, Curtis said, under which Amazon would itself print the number of books it pre-sold, especially for big titles.

Publishers, while wary about Amazon's long-term publishing intentions, nonetheless supported Back in Print. The head of one medium-sized house said his company has not yet entered the print-on-demand field, but said Amazon's model "makes sense. It's a great opportunity for us." Pointing to higher printing costs, the publisher noted POD is a way to keep books alive without incurring extra production and inventory costs.

As for Pages, an Amazon spokesperson said the e-tailer remains committed to launching the program this year. She declined to say if any publishers had agreed to participate in Pages, and several large houses contacted by PW said they have not yet signed up. "There are so many issues to review," the head of one house said, starting with how royalties would be tracked.