Amazon Upgrade reinvents online access to books

May 29, 2006 | 4 2 min read

With little fanfare, Amazon has unveiled a new feature that has major implications for the digital distribution of books. For starters, Amazon has revamped its “Search Inside the Book” interface and renamed it the Amazon Online Reader. Looking at To the Lighthouse, the familiar links allowing you to jump to the table of contents, an excerpt, and other sections of the book are visible on the left side of the new interface, but below those is a tab called “Highlights/Bookmarks.” Along the top are buttons that allow you to jump to specific pages, highlight, bookmark, copy, and print. All of these features are inaccessible unless you use a new feature that was introduced jointly with the new online reader called Amazon Upgrade. For an extra five dollars when you buy the hard copy of a book, Amazon Upgrade gives you online access to the book and lets you “mark it up” with highlighting, bookmarks, and notes, a process which is explained here. Perhaps most fascinating is that Amazon allows you to make your notations public so that they can be viewed by other readers. To me this sounds like aggregating all the many jottings that populate the used books sitting on dusty shelves everywhere.

The other aspect of this that interests me is the reader itself. The old interface for viewing a book was clunky and the text was hard to read comfortably, but with the new reader the display is much larger and easier to read, and the pages load almost instantaneously compared to the old version. While not ideal, it’s now possible to imagine actually reading a book in this way. Others have taken notice of this as well, and it is causing some to speculate that Amazon is looking to sell access to books online whether or not one buys the hard copy.

For more info on the new Amazon Online Reader, check out Lifehacker and ResourceShelf.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. Compare to the offhand observation in Mark Singer's profile of Sony's CEO (in this week's New Yorker) about a Sony digital book.

    It sounds like we're back in the heady days of the late 90s, when the "death of the traditional book" sparked Sven Birkerts' Gutenberg Elegies.

    Still, I can't imagine how an e-book can improve on the durable technology of the book itself. As with, say, the towel, the loaf of bread, the coffeemug, it seems to be a pretty perfect technology already. And, having written on this subject, I swear there's a difference between words on a page and words on a screen.

  2. Kevin Kelly, in a lengthy essay in the May 14, 2006 New York Times (, gives some good reasons why digitized books will catch on, including interactive annotation (i.e. Amazon's "mark-up" feature):

    "Once text is digital….text will no longer be separate from the text in other books….you'll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book's bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links….any and all words in a digitized book can be hyperlinked to other parts of other books…Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours."

    How will Amazon maintain their Online Reader's profitability, though, as digitization becomes cheaper and digitally marked-up books are "file-shared" the way music is?

  3. Garth, I totally I agree with you. I don't think these types of efforts will replace all books, but I do think they will be useful for books that you don't curl up next to the fireplace with – textbooks being the most obvious example. I'd much rather read a textbook this way and be able to search my notes and keep them organized rather than using the 25 lb. hard copy and a fistful of highlighters.

    Laurie, You make an interesting point, but what I wonder is where do these digitized books come from? Unlike music, which can be easily digitized by almost anyone, books are only being digitized by big companies and institutions, and they aren't likely to make them available in formats that will be easily tradeable, at least not any time soon.

  4. Ah. Textbooks. Yes. There are many, many "books"–reference, etc.–that I would celebrate in e-format. It's just the literature thing that I'm a snob about…and I prefer to take my classics straight, without commentary. On the other hand, I hear Mark Danielewski is soliciting e-marginalia for his forthcoming book…which would make it a part of the work

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