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What’s the Future of Amazon’s A9?

I’m apparently not the only one who’s not using Amazon’s A9 search tool. A recent AP article said that “A9 ranked 41st in popularity among search engines in February, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings, attracting only a fraction of visitors to Google or Yahoo.” I realize A9 has some cool bells and whistles in it, but I rarely stray from good old, plain vanilla Google for my searching.

The article goes on to ask whether 41st place is anything to get investors excited about, especially in such a crowded space where the leaders are constantly innovating. I would tend to agree… But Jeff Bezos is wicked smart and I’m sure he’s got plans to make it more impactful and widely used than it is today.

Is it possible that A9 could evolve into a fee-based search utility? What if you could use it to search the entire list of titles available on Amazon? I’m not talking about the limited way you can access snippets of a book from A9 through Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book” program. I’m talking about complete access to every page of every book that Amazon sells. Totally unlimited.

What’s the financial model? Maybe it would be a monthly rate that allows you to do “x” maximum searches per day/month.  A per search fee might apply if you exceed that maximum. There could be several tiers offered, the same way you can pick from several cell phone calling plans. A9 would then divvy up the monthly proceeds based on which pieces of content were viewed.

Yes, all sorts of DRM and security measures would have to be in place to prevent unauthorized duplication and distribution of the content. I’ll bet the harder part would be getting all the publishers to agree to the terms and fees. What do you think?

Comments

Naba Barkakati

Hi Joe,

I had never heard of A9 until now, but you got me to try it :-) When I got in, A9 knew my name; I assume from my amazon.com account. I searched for "Linux hardware compatibility" and noticed a Books button on the right and when I clicked that, it showed books with page references and short quotes from specific pages where that phrase appears. Best of all, it had one of my recent Wiley titles, "Linux All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies", along with other competing titles of course. Clicking the page reference takes me to that page of the book in amazon.com's "see inside the book" view and clicking the title gets to that book's page on amazon.com. One more click and I could buy it! I have a feeling that Amazon can get people to use it just for the book search feature and, in return, Amazon gets to lure them into amazon.com where at least some would buy the book.

I am not so sure about the fee-based model for A9 to access all pages of a book. If DRM and security issues were resolved, I'd think buying a whole book in some sort of read-only (PDF?) file (for less than the price of a paper copy) would work, but that would again involve Amazon selling the softcopy book on their online store. In other words, Amazon can probably build up the buzz around A9 and just use it another draw for buying books at amazon.com. At least, I hope so :-)

Dave Taylor

While A9 is an interesting search engine and I certainly hold Amazon in the highest esteem, I have to say that the 'search inside the book' is a very dangerous capability from a writer/publisher perspective. As an experiment, I did a search a few months ago and randomly picked a book page match. I then read the three pages it showed, then did another search for the last phrase on the last page shown. It then, surprise, showed me the next three forward pages (two new ones), and so on. After a bit I think it stopped matching the manuscript, but if I could have had my IP address wander, or would have only done a few searches a day (or week), I believe that I could, in an automated fashion, have eventually downloaded the entire book to my computer. Hmmm....

Evan

I firmly believe the words "Search" and "Fee" will never successfully go together on the internet.

Unless, of course, Google does it first ;)

Seriously though, as many wise people have noticed, we are the product Google is selling, we are not the buyers. Google sells ad space, A9 sells...well, Amazon sells books and A9 seems like a fanboy experiment.

I wouldn't pay a cent to search through a snippet of a novel, but I will happily use and abuse Safari to the best of my ability. A9 doesn't (and doesn't need) this capacity. If you're going after the tech market O'Reilly has them beat. If they're going for the novel reader, who reads novels on their computer screen? And would pay for the privilege.

Interesting idea, but it doesn't hold much water in my opinion.

Brad Hill

I love A9, and use it sometimes. I think its traction problems come from the breakneck pace of development. Major and minor engines are innovating too fast for consumers to track, unless they have an unusual interest in search. Most people relate to search as a commodity service. Studies also indicate that most consumers search poorly, and could well use targeting tools currently being rolled out. But those tools don't make it to most people's radar, making it difficult for A9's personalization perks and photo-enhanced local search to make significant waves. (Not to mention Yahoo! Video, Google Maps, Clusty, Answers.com, MSN Search sliders, and many other new toys.)

Naba: I'll key off your comment to disagree about the control issue inherent in "Search inside the book" systems. Beware, oh publishing industry, of following the music business down its self-destructive path, a path illuminated primarily by an outdated desire to control individual bits of content. Speaking generally, I think subscription is a forward-looking revenue model, even with its conceptual and political difficulties. It would mean a great deal to me if all my products (about 20 books) were searchable, downloadable, and shareable. More than anything, it would help me strengthen the personal brand, and it might also keep my back catalog viable for longer than the painfully short physical shelf life. Further, I personally believe that virtual sharing does not damage physical sales in content industries generally, though a definitive answer to that question will probably remain elusive for a long time.

Joe: Wouldn't the licensing bottlencks prevent Amazon (or any retail platform) from establishing a comprehensive "search within the book" model? Maybe we should think of comprehensiveness as applying only within a brand--for example, searching within all Dummies books or O'Reilly Hacks books. Perhaps the future lies in niche subscriptions, implemented by individual publishers.

Joe Wikert

Hi Naba. Shortly after the launch of Search Inside the Book in 2003, Amazon issued a press release stating “sales growth for titles included in Search Inside the Book outpaced growth for titles not in the program by 9 percent.” They don’t appear to have played it up much in any press releases since then.

Dave, I thought Amazon built in logic to prevent any single user from accessing more than a certain percentage of a book’s total pages. If it’s set up that way, you could log in as one user, do the maximum number of searches for that user, then log in with another user name and continue. That seems a bit awkward though, don’t you think? There will always be some number of people out there who will do something like this. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’ve got to believe that number will always be small. Plus, a quick check of Amazon’s Top 25 Computers & Internet titles shows that 8 of the 25 have Search Inside the Book available. Is that content being lifted as you suggest, meaning they could have sold even more without this feature? Possibly, but I doubt it.

Evan, great point about the value of this for a novel vs. a reference work. I agree that this isn’t a viable option for novels. But a large percentage of the books out there are references, making them ideal candidates for a searchable system. As you point out, Safari is proving this can work for computer books. I doubt many Safari customers are reading those books in a sequential fashion – my gut tells me most are doing reference searches on that content.

Brad, you’re right about the legal issues and other challenges in making this work across the publishing industry. However, companies like Books24x7.com have managed to pull together a broad base of content for their subscription programs. I like your thinking on the focus of a series/publisher/brand. Of course, it also reminds me of a related post that started a rather lively discussion. You might want to read it and comment on it.

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