The 21st-century view might end up being that a book is a collection of pages, which can each be sold on its own.
Thats one conclusion that can be drawn from almost simultaneous announcements from Microsoft, Google and Amazon.com this week, where each of the Web giants announced slightly different plans to sell digitized book parts.
Microsofts move was a strategic partnership with the British Library in London wherein it will digitize about 25 million pages of content, according to a report in The Financial Times.
Microsoft will invest about $2.5 million as "an initial investment" in a long-term project that will start with 10,000 books being scanned, the newspaper reported.
Googles move was its long-anticipated effort of scanning published works that have passed into the public domain, starting with books from the libraries at Harvard, Stanford, the New York Public Library and the University of Michigan.
The documents will be readable in their entirety at print.google.com.
The documents can easily be saved to a users computer, Google said.
The potentially most aggressive move came from Amazon.com, which introduced two programs: Amazon Upgrade, which lets customers immediately access a full digital version of a purchased book; and Amazon Pages, which will allow customers to purchase pages or chapters of books, instead of the full books.
Both programs grow out of Amazons Search Inside service, which lets users see a few pages inside any participating book.
Amazon estimates that 50 percent of all currently offered books on Amazon now support Search Inside.
Search Inside is intended to be used as a browsing tool, to replicate the physical bookstore experience of flipping through a book before deciding to buy it. Amazon tries to discourage people from printing or saving those pages, but it cant prevent users from doing so if they are persistent.
"Anything you can see on your computer, you can always do a page [screen] capture, but we can disable the print function so it makes it harder to print," Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos said in a Ziff Davis interview, adding that his firm might be doing other things to discourage data capture.
"We have two years of experience. We dont discuss the kinds of things we do to make Search Inside secure."
With Amazon Pages, Bezos estimates, each page will sell for just a few cents, which puts a fairly low threshold for how much effort someone will be willing to expend to avoid paying the fee.
Bezos said the more likely usage is for someone who needs a full chapter or two, but not the whole book. He cited a university student whose professor assigns selected chapters from several books.
Whether Amazon Pages customers will be permitted to easily store those files is unclear. Bezos initially said that they couldnt, but quickly said that it would ultimately be decided by various publishers.
"This is online access. It is not downloadable," he said. "Ultimately, whether publishers want printing disabled or not will be up to them. For the majority of books, you will be able to do copy-and-paste and printing. If you print very many pages, of course, its so much more cost-effective to buy the physical book."
Chuck Richard, VP and lead analyst for market research firm Outsell, thinks the timing may be right for all three ventures.
"I think its something consumers want. The lesson is this is the era of My Yahoo and MySpace. This is the result of people wanting to get their information the way they want it," Richard said.
"There is definitely a need for this. Im surprised its taken them this long to do this. They already have the look inside the book. Where that feature was available, there was an average 8 percent increase in revenue than books that didnt have that feature."
Richard adds that the Google programs and, to a lesser extent, the Google and Microsoft efforts, lend themselves much more to informational texts (manuals, textbooks, technical references, cookbooks, etc.) than entertainment books (fiction, novels, mysteries, etc.).
As Amazons comments reinforce, the publishers are in the driving seat in terms of how far these programs go.
"Google has by far paid the least attention to creating a positive environment for copyright material," Richard said.
"Other entrants have been extremely attentive to publishers who have rights to content. Google claims its helping publishers expose books to a larger audience. But they could create a natural animosity that may backfire later. Well have to see what happens with those lawsuits. They could have huge implications on scanning and digitizing content without permission."
Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.