Amazon.com is reportedly planning to post the text of tens of thousands of books online, as part of a strategy to make its site a more informative and absorbing place to be.
Amazon already allows shoppers to try before they buy
The retailer is currently in talks with publishers to create a searchable database of non-fiction books, the New York Times reported.
The plan represents a major expansion of the facility currently available to customers in the US, where contents pages and extracts of certain books are made available.
It also complements such non-retail offerings as restaurant menus and movie listings, as part of a drive to make users spend more time at Amazon.com.
This strategy - which the company is keeping under wraps - could help Amazon compete with portal-style sites such as Yahoo and MSN.
Searching for success
The key element in Amazon's plan is the searchability of the database.
The intention is not that customers will read through books online, but use the search engine to target the right books via keywords.
The difficulty of the plan is to secure the agreement of publishers, who are worried by any attempt to post their copyrighted material freely online.
Any agreement will be restricted to non-fiction, and probably only to the sort of narrative non-fiction - history, biography and so on - where extracts are likely to whet a buyer's appetite to purchase.
Some more fragmentary sorts of non-fiction - cookbooks, for example, or reference works - are seen as unsuitable, since shoppers might be satisfied by downloading a snippet for free.
The precise financial details of any agreement are also somewhat delicate.
Publishers stand to gain from any increase in book sales via Amazon.
But Amazon expects to benefit more broadly: by enticing surfers to spend longer at its site, it can expect higher sales of non-book products - extra revenues that publishers will not get a share of.
As such, Amazon is likely to have to pay a heavy fee to scan each book into its online database.
But analysts reckon Amazon has no choice but to make its site more efficient and attractive.
Although long famous as an online retailer, it is increasingly being bypassed by sophisticated search engines such as Google, which are able to direct shoppers to cheaper or more suitable offerings elsewhere.