Senior director of publishing at netLibrary, which was founded in August 1998 to distribute e-books to public, school, academic and corporate libraries, Miriam Gilbert is bullish on the future of the e-book. In the past two years, Gilbert, who was the company's 22nd employee, has seen netLibrary grow to more than 450 employees and diversify its services to include production of online editions of textbooks, through its acquisition of MetaText. The company, based in Boulder, Colo., also developed its own downloadable reader for e-books, and jump-started its entry into the e-book market for handheld computers by purchasing Peanut Press last February.
Gilbert, who is involved in netLibrary's core library business, works with approximately 30 trade reference publishers, including Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill and Barron's. "We create and manage digital versions of publishers 'titles and sell e-book versions to our customers. Publishers benefit by being able to track how their books are sold and used by library patrons," she explains. "NetLibrary provides the glue that brings publishers and libraries together." Measured strictly in dollars, netLibrary is far more valuable to publishers than a jar of Elmer's; its third-quarter payments totaled $2.2 million.
NetLibrary enables the 1,700 librarians it serves "to streamline the entire research process," says Gilbert. Patrons can search netLibrary's database through a link from the library's Web site, view a book's entire table of contents and index, and go directly to the page they want. In addition, as Gilbert points out, "e-book collections are never lost, stolen or damaged."
Just as with print reference, it's up to the library to set the checkout period, which can range from a few hours to several days. To protect the publishers' copyrights, "without which we wouldn't be in business," notes Gilbert, netLibrary has adopted a "one-book-per-user" model. As with print books, only one person can check out an e-book at a time, whether they choose the download or the on-screen viewing option. This enables libraries to monitor usage and cuts down on copying outside of fair usage. When the checkout time has expired, the user can only access the e-book by checking it out again.
For Gilbert, "recency," or keeping books up-to-date, is just as important for reference e-books as it is for their print cousins. In October, she notes, "We signed an agreement with ABC-CLIO to release reference e-books simultaneously with the print editions. We have an agreement with John Wiley to distribute their frontlist almost simultaneously. For now we have to work with the most recent material that we're given." However, netLibrary is looking into ways of incorporating changes seamlessly, without waiting for new editions. "We are working on a system with publishers to make that updating as routinized as possible," says Gilbert.
Starting this fall, netLibrary began embedding the fourth edition of Houghton Mifflin's The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language in its e-books. "It adds a multimedia dimension," comments Gilbert, who is pleased that despite permissions difficulties, the company has been able to include as many as one thousand illustrations from the print dictionary in the e-book format. One of the advantages of the e-format dictionary is that libraries can choose what they want to make available to their patrons. For example, says Gilbert, "School libraries may choose the Children's or Students' editions of the dictionary," which contain no swear words.
As for the viability of reference-oriented e-books in the consumer market, Gilbert comments that it's still too early to predict. "One of the things I'm always struck by," she says, "is that so much of the talk is on the consumer market, but the market isn't there. It's all heat, but no light." Despite netLibrary's focus on English-language electronic reference, she regards the company's next growth spurt coming from abroad, not from consumers. "We see that there's a lot of potential. We've recently expanded our sales into Canada, the U.K., Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Africa and Korea."
Grolier Pioneers the E-Frontier
-Heather Vogel Frederick "In our business, electronic publishing is not a threat, it's a new frontier," says Phil Friedman, v-p and publisher of Grolier Educational, a Scholastic company. "We decided that if we were going to be successful, this is where we've got to be, and we're there."
Grolier has always been at the forefront of encyclopedia publishing in an electronic format, he says, dating back to the late 1980s when the company launched the first CD-ROM version of its academic encyclopedia, which in the early '90s became the first Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Now, he notes, "as CD-ROM has waned as a distribution medium, we have been moving our business into online delivery."
This began in December of 1996 with the launch of Grolier Online, an online, subscription-based, educational portal (go.grolier.com), which at this point is aimed primarily at schools and public libraries.
At the same time, says Friedman, "print has remained strong for us. We have steady sales of our Encyclopedia Americana and The New Book of Knowledge, and we see that continuing for the foreseeable future."
As for the comparative advantages and disadvantages of the two mediums, Friedman notes "it's all in the eye of the beholder. Certainly in print you have the tactile experience, but I think the key thing in electronic publishing is that we're able to broaden the material we present in the encyclopedia itself by linking it to third-party databases. Print offers bibliographic citations that, if you want, you can get up and go to a shelf and check, but with hyperlinking and Web linking, we send you directly there with just a click. That's a major advantage, we think."
Another advantage e-publishing offers is the ability to update reference information more frequently. "With our print encyclopedias, we have always been and continue to be on an annual revision cycle," Friedman explains. "But with our electronic databases, we are updating as frequently as weekly."
Perhaps the most important feature the electronic format offers, he says, is the Grolier Internet index. "Besides the six databases that we own and maintain on the site, we also have this index, which is a database of many thousands of Web sites that our own editorial team has researched and annotated and linked us to," says Friedman. "We think of this as a sort of 'Best of the Web'-where we preresearch a subject and offer subscribers the best five or six sites, rather than directing them to Yahoo for some 100,000 sites."
This feature is "very important" in the educational market particularly, he notes. "It drives them crazy in the schools when kids come into the library and waste all their time surfing. It's very advantageous for students to go to our preselected Web links, get the information they need and get their papers done."
Thus far, the electronic arena hasn't influenced Grolier's marketing strategy all that much, although that may change in the future. "Right now, our customers are making both print and electronic decisions primarily through traditional print sources like Publishers Weekly or Library Journal," Friedman says, "so most of our marketing is still focused in the print world even for e-products. But there are other things we are experimenting with, such as some list servers and banner ads in Library Journal Digital."
A Web site (publishing.grolier.com) offers an online searchable catalogue, which is about to be enhanced, as well as curriculum correlation for their titles. In Friedman's words, "Certainly this is becoming a more and more important aspect of marketing." As for Grolier's editorial team, he adds, "we made the decision as a company very early on that our editorial staff would work on all platforms."
Overall, he says the expansion into electronic publishing "has been fun for us and for our editorial staff. Being able to put all this information into e-format is very invigorating, and people here have been very energized over the past four or five years working on this."