One of the key innovations Amazon (AMZN) implemented on its way to becoming the largest online book retailer in the country was to allow its customers to preview snippets of books they might want to purchase. "Try before you buy" was hardly a new concept, but in Amazon's hands, the "search inside this book" feature became a core component of a successful business model.
But a new patent granted earlier this week by the U.S. Trademark & Patent Office suggests Amazon may be rethinking its free preview concept. According to TechFlash, the patent, which was first filed in 2004 and lists CEO Jeff Bezos among the inventors, envisions a system in which consumers "pay different amounts to view portions of content from the electronic form of a work," ranging from mere words to phrases to individual chapters.
Why mess with what seems to be a good thing? Even in the introduction to the patent filing, Amazon says that customers unhappy with a particular purchase may find returning it "oftentimes a time-consuming process," and notes that one way to avoid such frustration is to allow potential buyers to preview items for free, "essentially the electronic equivalent of browsing through the pages of a book or other published work in traditional brick-and-mortar stores."
The problem, per Amazon, arises when potential customers become "loath to pay for a work when they can view the work for free," and try to search for as much material as they can gratis instead, thereby depriving both the retailer and the publisher of a sale -- especially since making free previews available costs both parties money.
Thus, the idea of asking customers to pay a variable fee to preview books and other published materials, depending on how much of said material is searched. There would even be some sort of incentive for the now-paying customers: By paying to preview content, they could earn discounts or credits which could be applied to future purchases.
Pay to Browse System Would Be a Sop to Publishers
One example cited in the patent application was of a customer who paid $1 to preview a book by Stephen King. After deciding to buy the book, the customer would then pay $1 less on another book of his. Alternatively, if the customer decided to preview enough Stephen King novels such that he or she had paid the equivalent of Amazon's discounted price for a King hardcover title, that book would, in effect, be free for the customer.
An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on why the company would want to introduce a pay-to-preview service, but if implemented, it would seem more likely to be a move to appease publishers worried about the effects of piracy, and increasingly discomfited by the thought of a critical mass of the e-reading public able to download substantial portions of books at no cost. This same line of thinking played a part in the initial (and litigious) opposition to Google Book Search, a project whose ultimate fate still rests in the hands of a Manhattan's federal court.
That's because a pay-to-preview system runs counter to the needs of consumers who want to know as quickly as possible whether a book or magazine is worth shelling out a few bucks over. And as a TechFlash commenter points out, turning what's now an easy process of searching portions of texts for free into a more laborious affair would have the same effect as charging an entry fee to a chain bookstore. No matter how seriously any brick-and-mortar company might entertain that notion, they have enough problems with their bottom line to ever make a move that would so alienate their customer base.
Amazon, being in a different league and using a different business model, has less to worry about. But all it takes is one flat-footed move to drive away customers, and charging them for the privilege of previewing once-free content is a sure way to send them looking elsewhere for their try-before-they-buy book needs.