Amazon and the Hard Sell


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With my new book Cashing In With Content: How Innovative Marketers Use Digital Information to Turn Browsers Into Buyers soon to be released, I decided to check out the book's new Amazon.com page. Well (I thought), as long as I'm here, I might as well click my name on the author link and pay a long-overdue visit to my first book, Eyeball Wars: a novel of dot-com intrigue. OK I admit it: I was deeply into a therapeutic session of vanity searching. Heck (I justified to myself) all I'm doing is listening in on a conference call. Being a multitasking sort of guy, I might as well poke around a bit while others are talking away.

But Wait! What's all this search-inside-this-book stuff? While I knew that Amazon had launched its "Search Inside the Book" feature a while ago, I had no clue about the wacky collateral data produced about the book I wrote. I realize that being able to read excerpts of a novel is a great way to see if it appeals to you. But searching a novel? In a retail context, I doubt it has much value. I can totally understand searching reference books and niche non-fiction titles. But who would search a satire on the dot-com world written in the form of a thriller?

If you're new to Search Inside the Book, here's how Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder & CEO, described the program in a letter to customers upon its launch: "You can find books at Amazon.com based on every word inside them, not just on matches to author or title keywords. Search Inside the Book searches the complete inside text of more than 120,000 books—all 33 million pages of them."

From the perspective of having written the words more than five years ago, it is fascinating to look at the various things surfaced by Amazon.com's remarkable Search Inside the Book tool. It kinda feels like someone is taking an inventory of every nook and cranny of my home, from the garage to the liquor cabinet. Hmm, you might learn . . . he doesn't fertilize and he buys cheap wine.

But here's the fun part: Amazon has added a bunch of interesting analytic tools on top of the Search Inside feature. My favorite is Amazon.com's Statistically Improbable Phrases, which catalogs the most distinctive phrases in the text of books from the Search Inside program. Basically, my take is that Statistically Improbable Phrases surfaces my writing tics for all to see and compare against other books. Again, I'm sure that Statistically Improbable Phrases are great when searching for esoteric data in non-fiction titles. But a novel? It just seems like someone is poking around in the literary equivalent of my underwear drawer. It turns out that I used the phrase "checked voice mail" in Eyeball Wars more often (six times) than any author used that phrase in any other book. The runner up (with two times) is Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy, and among several books tied for third is Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl: A Novel by Tracy Quan. This is fine literary company indeed.

Another cool feature is Amazon's implementation of Concordance, an alphabetized list of the 100 most frequently occurring words in a book (excluding common words such as "of" and "it"). A neat visualization element is achieved as the font size of a word is proportional to the number of times it occurs in the book. Again, great stuff for non-fiction, but the only use I can find for fiction is a really fun bit of nostalgia as the writer. I can even click a word to see a list of book excerpts containing that word and then link to an image of the page. So I cruised around happily pondering the wisdom of my 156 uses of the word "new" in the book. I even found one of my characters using the word "new" twice in one sentence: "New media for a new generation," he said smugly. It makes me cringe now, but hey, back in 1999 and 2000 when I wrote Eyeball Wars, dot-com was new, New, NEW.

I think Search Inside is truly a great feature. It really does say a lot about how far we've come as an industry in creating interesting and useful ways to find the content that's important. And if you're a writer, it's a wonderful component to periodic vanity searching exercises. But there's even more: In "fun facts" I learned that you get 5,359 words per dollar when you purchase Eyeball Wars. And in another sobering stat that turned my attention back to the conference call I had been ignoring, the Flesch-Kincaid Index provided readability scoring calculations related to the U.S. grade level required to read my book. So, is it good or bad that you need only a seventh grade education to read Eyeball Wars? And what does that bit of collateral data say about the author?