The numbers speak for themselves.
Although electronic publishing currently represents just 10 to 15% of World Book Inc.'s revenue stream, "it probably consumes 50% of our development dollars right now," estimates executive v-p and publisher Michael Ross. "We're heavily invested in this area." By electronics, Ross adds, "I mean online delivery, not CD-ROM, which as a category is clearly waning in importance."
Nor is he talking about e-books. "We just don't see them as compelling right now," he says. "Not that we have anything against them, but because our products are multivolume by nature and contain large databases, the real value of the digital experience is the way everything links together and allows users to search across the volumes. It's hard for me to understand why an e-book is better than print in this case-why download just the "A" volume when you can use the whole thing online?"
Print continues to be a strong format for World Book's products, meanwhile, and Ross expects that to continue.
While there's no question that there are distinct advantages to the electronic format, he says-from search functions to media enrichment to the fact that information can be archived instead of deleted-print is still seen as "the most democratic media. When we ask librarians in particular what they want to buy five years from now, they all tell us the same thing: 'We want to buy online and we want to buy print.'"
Expansion into such electronic ventures as World Book Online-"our flagship product"-and others showcased on their Web site(www.worldbook.com) has brought with it both unique opportunities and unique challenges.
One of the major opportunities has been the formation of "critical partnerships" with such companies as IBM, McGraw-Hill, Discovery Channel and so on, Ross says. "We want to make sure we keep control of the product, but we cannot be experts in everything at once." These partnerships, he believes, greatly enhance the user experience. "It's all about how you thrill your customers, and not only meet their expectations but exceed them. You can't do this alone-if you do, you won't survive."
If a subscriber to World Book Online were to look up an article on, say, Al Gore, Ross explains, "in addition to seeing the typical outline, information, photographs and perhaps some media, you're also going to see links to periodicals and newspapers that we have preselected to lead you to the most current and relevant information. We don't have periodicals and newspapers in our database, so we have a partnership with EBSCO to provide them. That's one example."
Another is their partnership with Western Standard Publishing, whose American Reference Library links World Book Online with a broad database of primary source material.
"In an article on the Civil War, with a single click you can get all of Abraham Lincoln's letters," Ross says. "This is no longer your daddy's encyclopedia."
If these are some of the advantages to electronic publishing in the reference arena, there are also some challenges, particularly in terms of marketing. "Now all of a sudden you're not selling a product and walking away. You're not selling inventory, you're selling a service, and with a service people have expectations. It has to be running, there has to be support, people they can talk to. Preselling has changed, after-market marketing has changed and your commitment to the customer is much different. It's a whole different sale, and you need a different person to make that sale, and a different kind of maintenance is involved."
On the editorial and design side, "a good editor is a good editor, whether the end result is a print product or an electronic product. We didn't want to create a barrier between these products or make second-class citizens out of anybody, so in terms of the creative and editorial teams, almost everyone is working on both."
This strategy has paid off, Ross says. Internally, "we have a very high productivity and morale around the shop because everyone looks at each other as teammates. Our only competition is to deliver the best possible product." And as for their customers, he adds, "we know that they're happy, because we have almost 100% renewal on all of our products."