Amazon's New Search Serves Up Recipes
By Renee Schettler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2003; Page F01
Last Wednesday, the only people privy to Ina Garten's recipe for Potato-Fennel Gratin were those who had bought the best-selling "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook," in which the recipe was first published.
But Thursday, Amazon.com was giving away the recipe for free. The online purveyor of books had launched a new feature, "Search Inside the Book," which, in collaboration with publishers, enables customers to conduct a keyword search of every word of every page of more than 120,000 books. Customers may then read several pages of any of these books -- including pages featuring recipes -- free of charge.
"It would be like walking inside a bookstore and being able to read every [book] in there and decide which ones are important to you," said Steve Kessel, Amazon.com Inc.'s vice president of North American media products. The goal of the program, said Kessel, is to work with publishers to allow people to discover more books that may be of interest to them.
And, ostensibly, to buy them.
But cookbooks -- and other books containing entries like recipes that are easily contained on a single page, such as a collection of poems or a reference book -- may pose an interesting challenge for Amazon, book publishers and especially cookbook authors. Amazon allows searchers to browse up to 20 percent of any book. Being able to read a few pages from a romance novel gives away little of the plot. But being able to access an entire recipe raises different questions.
To acquire Garten's recipe, all any carb-craving Amazon customer has to do is type the words "potato gratin" into the search box on the Web site's home page. Search Inside the Book does the rest.
For those who value cookbooks to linger over and learn from as well as cook with, Search Inside the Book may change little in their book-buying habits except how they select a book. But for those for whom cookbooks hold no special lure, the search feature may effectively eliminate the need to purchase one. Will anyone bother to spend the money for the book when the recipes can be accessed online?
Though publishers considered the venture with Amazon before signing on to the program, not all had taken into account the unique situation cookbooks present. "We talked about it, but not in relation to cookbooks," said Susan Friedland, executive editor/director of cookbook publishing at HarperCollins. "One of the reassuring things is that Amazon doesn't make money unless they sell books, and they think this is a way to help them."
Others saw it as a certain boon to business. "We're very excited about it," said Natalie Chapman, vice president and publisher of culinary at John Wiley & Sons, Inc. "We saw an increase in sales through the 'Look Inside the Book,' " she said, referring to another Amazon initiative that allows customers to read preselected excerpts from books. "An increase in sales of all of our cookbooks," she emphasized. "And that's why we're eager to see what will happen with this as well. We see it as a very positive thing."
At least one bookseller, though, was pessimistic about the venture's potential impact on sales overall, not to mention its ethical issues. "Cookbooks are often bought for a particular recipe," said Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters, a specialty bookstore in Manhattan handling some 13,000 titles. "Practically nobody buys a cookbook because they expect to cook everything in the book. If you give many people what they want, it would give them a good reason . . . to say 'I got what I needed.' "
While Waxman and his staff tend to accommodate customers who wish to simply spend a few minutes looking through a book, they don't allow copying of recipes. "For the simple reason that this is how the authors make their living," he said.
"We may or may not lose some sales," Waxman added. "I'm a lot less concerned as a bookseller than I am for the author."
Some cookbook authors said they were concerned and surprised to learn about the collaboration between their publishers and Amazon.
"Amazon, Clarkson Potter [the publisher of Garten's three books] and I all have the same interest," was Garten's optimistic initial response. "And that is to sell books."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company