Amazon is trying to do for books what Apple's iPod digital player did for portable music. The online retail giant on Thursday said it will offer online access to books for a fee to customers who buy hard copies of the same book. The service starts next year.
Also, in a twist on pay-per-view television, Amazon will start making pages of books available online on a pay-per-page basis.
"We think this is a big deal," Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says. "If we can bring the world of books to customers, wherever they happen to be, that's a worthwhile thing to work on."
The publishing industry is going through a rough transition into the digital age, battling Internet search giant Google over copyright-infringement claims.
Google is scanning in copyrighted books from several libraries, part of its plan to let online users search books. While only snippets of the books are available for viewing, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Authors Guild have sued Google, saying it doesn't have the right to scan the books without permission.
Google says it has fair use. Thursday, it began offering public domain books from the libraries at print.google.com.
Microsoft also is a player. Last week, the software maker joined Yahoo's competing book-digitization program, which allows online searches of books in the public domain. A test version is set for next year.
Publishers welcomed Amazon's new service. "We're very pleased," AAP director Judith Platt says. "We are willing to embrace the digital environment with open arms, but it needs to be done in a way that respects publishers and authors."
The new Amazon program stems from its "Search Inside the Book" feature launched two years ago. Since then, one of every two books offered in the USA has the feature, which next year will go further with the pay-per-page and online-access features.
Bezos expects consumers to pay a fee of about $1.99 to get digital access to the book at the time of purchase, and to pay "a few cents" per page for page views. Books suitable for this category are ones devoted to cooking, computers and textbooks, he says.
Amazon began 10 years ago as an online bookseller, but it has expanded into many other sales categories. Still, books remain its No. 1 category, Bezos says.
He declined comment on Google's plans.
Also Thursday, publisher Random House said it hopes to put its books online on a pay-per-page basis.
"We believe that it is important for publishers to be innovative in providing digital options for consumers to access our content," said Richard Sarnoff, president of Random House's corporate development division.