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Wednesday, October 29, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Amazon's inside look irks authors: Search function previews any page

By Monica Soto Ouchi
Seattle Times technology reporter

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Edward Hasbrouck has made a living writing about travel, and he owes a significant part of his sales to Amazon.com. The online retailer has served as a valuable place for him to connect with customers who wouldn't see his books otherwise.

Yet Hasbrouck and other trade-book authors are concerned that a new feature on Amazon's site may begin to erode sales by giving away the secret sauce, so to speak.

Amazon last week unveiled technology that allows customers to use keywords to search the entire content of a book, beyond author or title. Called "Search Inside the Book," the technology allows user to find keywords in 120,000 books, or 33 million pages, and preview the text inside.

The feature is particularly troubling to reference-book authors who think they may lose a sale if a user can find "the best place to hike in Chaco Canyon" or "where to find the best airfare to Cuba" by using Amazon's search feature instead.

"I think that it is not going to be a simple or quick decision for authors to evaluate whether or on what terms they would want to participate in this program," Hasbrouck said. "That's not a decision that I've made yet."

The new feature may have other problems: Each search allows the user to see the full-text of the page where the keyword appears, plus two pages forward and two backward. But savvy searchers can actually read more of the book.

In an e-mail to its members, The Authors Guild, the country's oldest and largest society of published authors, said it was able to print out 108 consecutive pages from a best-selling book by using key search terms.

An attempt to use the method yesterday successfully called up more than 150 pages of a travel book.

Paul Aiken, executive director of The Authors Guild, said some authors have e-mailed him to ask that their works be opted out of the system (although it's an issue to be discussed between an author and publisher).

"It's not our idea that we're trying to undermine this new system," he said. "It's just that people should look at it carefully, and authors in particular who know their books best should make a determination."

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Amazon spokeswoman Kristin Schaefer said the company has security measures in place to limit the amount of content that can be seen from any one book. She wouldn't disclose those measures.

The company worked closely with publishers to make sure the program adhered to all their guidelines, she said.

"We believe our interests are very aligned with publishers and authors because it's all about helping customers find, discover and buy more books," she said.

Authors have raised protests in the past about new features on Amazon that have become widely accepted and even popular. The site's ranking of the best-selling books, which worried authors and publishers at first, has become a widely used way to gauge early sales and the relative success of certain types of publicity.

Kate O'Neill, who teaches copyright law and contracts at the University of Washington Law School, said if the technology makes it cumbersome to retrieve the copyrighted work, then it's a theoretical problem, not a practical one.

"It's not likely to have the same economic impact that we've seen with (illegal music-sharing sites) Napster and Kazaa, but it's still a potentially big issue," she said.

At Avalon Travel Publishing, some authors raised concerns that they weren't notified of the feature before the publisher gave Amazon consent to be involved. Avalon publisher Bill Newlin said individual authors may opt out, but he recommends they wait and see how the program works.

"Every time Amazon has done something like this, it's increased book title sales," he said. "If they don't want to have their material displayed, we will press the button and have it released."

Ed Bott, who has written technical books about Microsoft Windows and Office for the past 10 years, said he can see both the pros and cons of the new feature.

And while Bott said Amazon has made aspects about selling books easier, "I don't think they've done too great of a job reaching out to authors to (explain) how this should be done," he said.

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com

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