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Friday, October 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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New Amazon feature aids sales

By Monica Soto Ouchi
Seattle Times technology reporter

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Call it the peek-a-boo effect.

Seattle-based Amazon.com yesterday said book sales have risen since it launched a new feature that allows users to search the text inside of books, beyond author and title.

In the first five days, aggregate sales for the 120,000 titles included in its "Search Inside the Book" program were 9 percent higher than sales for titles not in the program, according to the company's calculations.

Steve Kessel, Amazon's vice president for North American Media Products and Apparel, would not disclose the number of titles not included in the program, but he said both groups are "statistically significant."

"You have two large groups of books that are generating significant sales," he said.

The company last week introduced the new feature, which allows customers to use keywords to search the entire content of a book, and to preview the text.

Reference-book authors, in particular, have questioned publicly whether the new program might erode sales because the technology gives users the ability to see too much content.

Each search allows the user to see the full-text of the page where the keyword appears, plus two pages forward and two backward. Savvy searchers, however, can read more of the book.

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

Amazon would not discuss security measures, but it said it worked closely with publishers to ensure it adhered to their guidelines.

According to an agreement Amazon sent to one publisher, however, the search technology prohibits users from viewing more than "20 percent of the textual pages of a particular title during any calendar month."

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The company used technology that prohibits users from downloading text pages or from saving those pages onto their desktops.

Amazon also uses technology to track page views by Amazon account — only those with valid Amazon accounts can use the service — and uses a low text resolution that makes it acceptable to read words onscreen, but fuzzy when printed out.

Amazon's Kessel would not confirm the agreement's terms.

Book sales continue to represent the core of Amazon's business, although it now offers products in a wide range of categories from electronics and apparel to kitchen appliances and gourmet food.

While the company doesn't disclose book sales specifically, its media division — which includes books, music, video and DVD products — accounted for more than 75 percent of it $1.1 billion in third-quarter sales.

Amazon is in the midst of the all-critical holiday quarter, when it racks up roughly a third of its sales for the year.

Kessel said the marketing program launched with 190 publishers, and 37 more publishers have since requested to be part of the program.

"No publishers have opted out," he said. "I think, especially when people start to see the results, they'll even be more ecstatic."

Park Puterbaugh, who co-authored books on California and Florida beaches with Alan Bisbort, said they decided to opt out of the program until they can learn more about its pros and cons.

"They (Amazon) haven't done much for us in the way of sales," said Puterbaugh from his Greensboro, N.C., home. "And it seems to me that making so much of the book available to browsers online might actually discourage sales."

The company's shares fell 86 cents yesterday to close at $55.83 on the Nasdaq. Amazon's stock has nearly tripled since the beginning of the year.

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

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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