Internet: Amazon’s Digital Dream

Published Feb 12, 2004
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Jeff Bezos shares an idea with a few other idealists: He wants to get every written word in the world online, in a vast digital library. So far he has assembled 120,000 written works. His goals are simple: To create the world’s biggest searchable digital bookstore. And to make a bundle of money in the process.

The Great Library
In 288 BC, Emperor Ptolemy I founded the great library in Alexandria, Egypt. This was an effort to collect and secure knowledge in a world where dissemination of information was dependent on mind power, because storage facilities were scarce and unreliable. It happened long before we had learned how to secure information by reproducing the texts industrially: on the printing press. Since texts written on parchment and papyrus tended to deteriorate quickly, vast resources had to be spent on reproduction by hand, a continuous and never-ending task. The librarians spent the next centuries in a frenzy of acquisition and collection. People came from all over the world to study in the library’s vast halls.

Internet: Amazon’s Digital Dream-Body

But knowledge was a power issue then, as it is now. When Alexandria was attacked several times throughout the coming centuries, the library was always a target, and none of the texts stored there survived. In 641 AD, a majority of the scrolls and books in the library were torched in great piles in ovens of the public baths, creating a pyre of information that is said to have burned for six months. We can only speculate as to how the library would have been, had it survived those days of destruction, but it is very likely that it would have been put to the torch sometime in the next five hundred years. Information is never safe.

Digitising Books
“The lesson,” Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle told Wired Magazine, “is to keep more than one copy.” He recently gave a copy of his 10-billion-page web archive to the new library in Alexandria. In their digital state, the texts are fully searchable, infinitely reproducible, but they are not books. And people love books. Because we tend to associate the act of reading as much with the physical medium as with the content, the idea that has been growing in the heads of Brewster Kahle and Jeff Bezos and a few others is a very subversive one. We may welcome the idea of digital storage of texts, but we want to keep the physicality of books. Bezos has tried to resolve these issues through an ingenious plan.

At, in the spring and summer of 2003, employees were busy digitising more than 120,000 texts. This is just a small beginning – the aim is to keep going until most of the company’s multimillion-title catalog is stored digitally. But for now, you can search through and view every single page of the 33 million pages in Amazon’s digital library. They call it Search Inside the Book. Soon, you may be able to do a lot more. Jeff Bezos has navigated a labyrinth of copyright issues and technological challenges, but he believes he can once again change the way we consume information. The idea: printing on demand.

The Old-Fashioned Business
The way the publishing business works right now, books become unprofitable when they still sell a few thousand copies a year. Books are abandoned by their publishers long before readers have decided they do not want to read a particular volume. The reason is that printing costs are high, and the economy of scale makes it necessary to print 100,000 copies of a book and then sell almost every copy to keep the prospect profitable. This creates specific power structures, with the large, financially stable, publishing houses on top. The situation is much the same in any business where packaging of physical objects is necessary to get the product out to customers. In the music business the idea that what constitutes the main value of a song is the song itself, and not its physical incarnation, has sprung from the consumers, and not the record industry. We all know how much noise that has created. Bezos’ idea promises to create as much havoc as Napster and Kazaa in the publishing industry.

“If I have 100,000 books that sell one copy every other year,” Steve Kessel, an Amazon VP, told Wired, “then in 10 years I’ve sold more of these, together, than I have of the latest Harry Potter.” An infinitely searchable online database, with every word of every page of every book indexed, is the foundation of publishing set-up where books are printed as part of the retail process. Brewster Kahle has already got the first such business up an running with his Internet Bookmobile, which prints paperbacks of out-of-copyright books at a price of about $1 each. The bookmobile consists of a minivan with a satellite dish, a computer, a printer, and a binder. A fully operational publishing business.

But if this is to be applied to the mainstream commercial publishing industry, there are major copyright issues to be tackled. Today’s book business is built on a network of production processes and intellectual property deals that have several well-established rules and foundations. The whole notion of copyright on intellectual property is based on the idea that the work has the roots of its value outside of its physical incarnations. But the value chain is entirely rooted in production schemes – the cost and income probabilities of making the volume available to the public. Bezos’ idea, if it is implemented, will change everything. In this business, as with the music industry, the power structure could be turned around.

What Will Change?
Of course, the success of Bezos’ digital scheme depends on customer response. Some cautionary voices point to the fact that digitising text is nothing new. When electronic books were launched a few years ago, a lot of people started talking about the death of the publishing industry. Others, with a pessimistic bent, talked about the death of Literature. I remember attending a PhD class in literary theory at New York University, where students and professors alike were complaining bitterly of how the Internet and ebooks were robbing them of their future. Their fears were premature. Ebooks never became a real threat to the established analogue book industry.

The big problem with ebooks was that they removed a book’s inherent physicality. “The idea of ebooks was to do away with paper,” says Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly. “But really, you want to add dimensionality to a physical object rather than take it away. You want an enhanced physical world.” Because, even though it is the text and not the page that is the real value of any book, people find it convenient and comfortable to read from a bound, printed page, rather than from a screen. That is why Amazon’s print-on-demand scheme has so much merit.

Information Freedom
Underneath the business idea lies an ancient notion of gathering, storing and disseminating knowledge. Amazon’s Search Inside the Book is both a great library idea and a great business idea (if Bezos gets the copyright issues resolved, and can stand up to the collective might of a publishing industry that is scared out of its wits). Other digital library projects are currently underway; among them, Project Gutenberg, which aims to digitise a million of the world’s classic texts; The New York Public Library’s Digital Library; and two children’s books projects.

The applications of digitising texts are so many, and the possibilities are almost limitless. Indexing all available texts would change and enhance the book industry, to be sure, but it would also greatly enhance the Internet itself. The sheer amount of information available would skyrocket. One of the fundamental concepts behind libraries is that the information should be available to everybody. But when business interests come into play, some kind of regulation of access is always implied. Because creating a product is impossible without controlling access – if everybody can get it, you can’t sell it. This inherent contradiction in Bezos’ idea may prove to be its greatest obstacle.

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