Twelve years ago, when Royalynn O'Connor wanted to pitch the CD-ROM version of the Oxford English Dictionary to potential customers, she found herself limited to those based on the East Coast. The technology was so cutting-edge that she was unable to rent equipment to demonstrate this "new" OED. "I had to load everything I needed into my station wagon and drive to shows or meetings."
Today, when O'Connor, now director of Oxford University Press's Business Development Group, wants to show off the latest incarnation of the venerable OED, her presentation is just a click away at www.oed.com. The dictionary, along with the publisher's American National Biography (www.anb.org) is now available online to subscribers that range from individuals to universities and corporations.
Taking the publications to the Net was an easy decision. "It became apparent as we entered the final development phases for the print edition of the ANB," says O'Connor, "that both the publication and the subject matter could be greatly enhanced online." New biographies and supplemental photographs were added, and the layout was redesigned to include navigation and search aids. As for the OED, OUP had already committed $55 million to a complete revision (the first since the late 1880s) due out in 2010. But, says O'Connor, "the prospect of waiting for more than a decade for the research to be made available seemed ludicrous in this current era of information technology." Putting the OED online fulfilled Oxford's mission to make research and scholarship available to as wide an audience as possible, as well as providing a revenue stream well in advance of the finished project. It also presented a still unresolved dilemma for O'Connor and her group. Noting that the revision will comprise some 40 volumes, O'Connor asks, "should we actually produce a print edition?"
While the Oxford University Press Web site (oup-usa.org) acts as a "brochure for both publications," O'Connor notes that the house is also in the enviable position of selling a new product to an old and valued market-a market that was consulted throughout the process of taking the OED and ANB to the Net. And it was feedback from workshops with students and faculty from across the country that added a now essential element to both those works-supplemental study aids and teacher materials. Even with both publications now up and running, OUP continues to work hard to keep open lines of communication with subscribers. After a sale is made to a library, college or corporation, OUP will send one of the editors ("almost like an author doing a signing," says O'Connor) to talk with them about the most effective ways to use the publications.
One challenge O'Connor sees confronting e-publishing is "simply the nascent state of the industry-principally the lack of a uniform pricing model. How do we define an institutional sale? Should Arizona State and Princeton qualify for the same rate? How about corporate customers with global offices? And in addition to the usual editorial development services, we now have developer/hosting service contracts and contracts covering the logistics of distribution with numerous consortia and state agencies." She also cautions publishers that they must learn to manage the current demand for online reference while always looking ahead to the future. "Are we ready to provide our publications to non-English-speaking markets? Can we fulfill our obligation to provide them with supplemental materials and a high level of service? This is not like just putting books in a box and sending them off."
The future of e-publishing seems almost limitless to O'Connor, with "entirely new publications driven by demand from the Web, rather than starting with an existing publication as a base." She also sees an ever-increasing market for reference on the Net-librarians ("we haven't begun to fulfill their demand for online information and reference material"), researchers, students, professionals, all wanting access to information as efficiently and cheaply as possible. "What we were doing last January we aren't doing now," says O'Connor. "Change in e-publishing is coming at such a rapid rate, and it's exciting to see how quickly we, as an industry, are adapting to these changes."