Amazon's Vital Statistics Show How Books Stack Up

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By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hey! Remember books? Sure you do. Your parents read them. So did their parents. Now for all those folks who like to talk about books without actually reading them, some exciting news! Amazon.com, the pack-leading online superstore, has figured out an innovative, and some would say insidious, way to talk about books.

Text Stats.

It's part of the company's ingenious "Search Inside" capability, which allows you to comb through the entire text of a book online.

Sure, "Search Inside" has been around for a couple of years and, by looking at the first few pages of a book that uses the feature, you can get to know a little about it before you buy.

But with the addition in April of Text Stats, "Search Inside" now takes books completely apart. It slices! It dices! It can uncomplicate comedies, trivialize tragedies, diminish legitimate discourse and completely humiliate the humanities!

Through Text Stats you can know such arcane things as the SIPs, or Statistically Improbable Phrases, that appear in a book. The strange pairing "reindeer socks," for instance, shows up four times in Eric Jerome Dickey's "Naughty or Nice." Text Stats will also tell you the number of characters (letters, not protagonists) in a book and the relative "complexity" of the words. It ranks works according to difficulty. Three different computer-driven indexes suggest whether a book is easier -- or harder -- to read than others.

And, thanks to a sensational subsection called Fun Stats, you will know just how many words you are getting per dollar and per ounce with each book. For instance, "War & Peace" by Leo Tolstoy gives you 51,707 words per dollar, while "Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme" by Calvin Trillin delivers only 1,106 words per dollar.

Confronted with the evidence, Trillin says, "I don't mind being compared to Tolstoy literarily, but when it comes to Fun Stats it's a little humiliating."

Trillin also says he was surprised to learn that of the words he used in his book, 10 percent of them were deemed "complex."

"I thought I was hitting around 6 or 7 percent," he says. "That's what I usually aim for."

Virginia author Robert Bausch is also concerned about his statistics. "There is something really kind of disturbing about this," he says while checking the Text Stats of "The Gypsy Man," his novel from 2003. "You can't tell me that 96 percent of books have fewer sentences than mine. If that's true, I'm in [expletive] deep [expletive]."

Kristin Mariani of Amazon.com says the "Search Inside" features were designed to make it "even easier for customers to find, discover and buy books they'll love." She adds that the program has helped increase sales.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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