Interview with Christopher Warnock,
CEO, CTO and co-founder of ebrary
Unfortunately for ebrary, the company
tends to get lumped in the ebook category. And we all know that
ebooks have had a hard time both in business and getting accepted by
consumers. This is a pity because the company uses digital books to
deliver an unique service to libraries. Christopher Warnock, CEO and
founder of ebrary, speaks his mind in this
From where did the idea for
ebrary come? What is ebrary's "creation myth"?
1988/9, when I was in school at the University of Utah, I
wanted to build a recumbent bicycle so I went to the Marriott
Library. At the time, half of the titles were in the card
catalogue and half were in the OPAC system. The engineering
books were down in the basement, books about bikes in general
were on the 3rd floor and periodicals were on the 4th floor in
microfiche. So trying to do research was not only a great
physical exercise program but was also not very efficient in
terms of getting the information that I needed, especially
since I had to check back and forth between the OPAC and the
card catalogue. Finally, I found a 700-page engineering book
on gears that the library had in stock. I remember thinking
that the information I needed was somewhere in this book, but
in order to be able to understand it I would have to read the
entire document and probably have to change my major from
philosophy to engineering. I thought at some point all of this
information is going to be accessible on the computer and that
was literally the seed that has taken 13 years to grow into
ebrary. It presented a problem to me that just never left
Ever since I was a
little kid, I wanted to be in publishing. After college, I
went to work for a San Francisco publisher, Arion Press. I
helped them essentially print the Bible from hot metal type,
which was driven from a Macintosh computer. I really loved the
job and the people there, but it was not what I wanted to do
with my life. I thought that if I was ever to do anything with
this idea of making information accessible online, I needed to
start working on it now. I then started working with Stanford
University on a Mellon grant to make university press titles
accessible to the university through the library
electronically. Stanford wanted me to incorporate in order to
get paid. So, what I ended up doing was talking to a friend of
mine from high school, Kevin Sayar, and we both came to the
conclusion that there was a potential business here and that
we'd like to go into business together. So literally over the
roof of his car he said "Why don't we go into business
together?" and I said "Sure" and that was the motivation to
get ebrary started. That was in October/November 1998.
has been the biggest barrier in getting ebrary up and running?
We have hit every barrier that you
can conceive of. From a technology standpoint, we have had to
clear hurdle after hurdle after hurdle for the technology to
be robust and to do with it what we wanted to do. And,
although the publishers have been very supportive, this is not
a core aspect of their business. We have a huge potential for
titles, but the titles haven't come in at a pace as quickly as
we would like. We have built our system to feed from the
publisher's existing production system, so there is no need to
pay for file conversion, saving both the publisher and ebrary
money. Both the publisher and ebrary are hindered by rights
and are by job turnover rate at the publishers. These barriers
for ebrary are the things that are barriers in any new
know that ebrary has recently changed its business model for
libraries. What is your current library business model and
what led to the change?
When we originally started out, the
idea was that we were going to be providing a portion of our
collection to libraries for free, and that we would pay them
approximately 5 percent of every print/copy transaction. It
later became clear that libraries were not interested in
getting money through a commercial enterprise. People laugh at
that, but that was literally our first business model. To be
honest, it is probably better that it didn't work. Our current
business model is, I believe, a more equitable and fairer
agreement for libraries, publishers and ourselves. What we
have done is customised our platform with a set of features
specifically targeted for library patrons' use, by coalescing
libraries' electronic resources into a more coherent
environment. So, in other words, we can take other electronic
resources that the library subscribes to and integrate them in
with our software, enabling the libraries to provide their
patrons with a more coherent research experience. We license
the software to libraries and with that comes between six and
ten thousand titles to date.
The library has a choice to either
subsidise the patrons' copying and printing costs or pass
those costs on to the patrons. With the "all you can eat
model," a library licenses the software and pays for access to
the content for an unlimited number of printing/copy
transactions at a fee determined by the FTE. Patrons can copy
and print as much as they like from the collection and neither
the patron nor library pays any additional fees. With the
original model, libraries license the software and patrons set
up their own accounts and pay for their own copy and print
the collection be expanding or does the collection remain
static from the time the library purchases access?
Our collection is always expanding,
and libraries receive periodic updates at no additional cost.
We are also offering price protection for libraries that sign
up prior to June 30, 2002 that will guarantee the current
pricing through June 30, 2003.
MARC records included?
Yes and as new content is added to
the collection, the new MARC records will be provided.
is authentication controlled?
By proxy server or by IP address.
Patrons have the option of setting up accounts, but that
account is only for their personal bookshelves, the
highlighting of texts and annotations of pages. But those are
two separate things.
do you now consider to be ebrary's primary
If we define "primary" as the market
that we are going after first, then it is libraries. Academic
and special libraries are our first priorities, but we
currently have pricing for public, K-12 and community college
libraries as well.
methods have you found to be the most effective in marketing
We are primarily going word of
mouth, which is slower than more traditional means but does
not eat up a huge portion of our budget. It has been
absolutely amazing to see how some of the press impacts
things, whereas other press, which you would think would have
more of an influence, has had no effect at all. I don't want
to name any names, but one of the primary drivers of traffic
to our site was something we wouldn't have expected. And one
of the things that we had huge expectations for - exposure in
one of the largest circulating magazines - had no influence at
all that we could find. Other marketing includes email
campaigns to libraries to let them know about the products,
trial programs, a newsletter and over 45,000 Web sites linking
to us from various avenues.
criteria are you using for selecting titles for the ebrary
collection? Who is making the selection?
We do a little bit in terms of the
publishers that we go after and the content that we request
from them. However, this is always compounded by rights
is more of a publisher-driven collection?
With the exception that we approach
the publishers with whom we'd like to work, and we do have
collections of content that we would like to see grow based on
do you predict to be the growth rate of ebrary's
We should hit 10,000 titles
relatively soon. We started out with 300 in July of last year,
and currently offer approximately 6,000. We could double our
collection within the next couple of months because we are now
expanding our content collection beyond books. Since we can
work with any document that is printed, there is a lot more
content out there in formats other than books. One example
would be maps. Another example would be journals. We will be
introducing later this year what we call "premium
collections." These are branded collections from journal,
magazine and other kinds of publishers that currently sell
directly to libraries - these collections will now also be
available through ebrary's platform.
library's perspective, if they have our system in place, they
will be able to get the MARC records and the electronic
content for other branded types of information - but I can't
give you an example of that right now. Libraries will be able
to seamlessly incorporate that collection into their ebrary
collection, as well as have the ability to take information
that the library has digitised and also put that within
ebrary. Hopefully we will have created a mechanism that will
enable library patrons to interact with the information
seamless from multiple databases.
In terms of MARC records,
would the MARC records be at the journal level, or are you
proposing MARC records at the article
everything that we do for libraries, we will have to talk with
the libraries first and then make a decision afterwards.
Based on usage statistics
collected thus far, how are library patrons using
Patrons come to
a book, they look around and then copy or print. We don't see
many people reading cover-to-cover; rather they are jumping
around in the book. Patrons appear to be looking at the
material long enough to determine whether it is pertinent or
not and then printing or copying a range of pages. Although we
can tell what a patron is doing, we don't know who that
individual is. We know whether the individual comes from a
particular library or partner, but end-users' privacy is
Is the usage data shared with
your library customers?
Yes, we will be
providing the usage data we are collecting back to the
libraries and partners, as well as publishers.
Are there certain subject
areas in ebrary's collection that are used more
At the library
level, there have not been any patterns that have emerged. Use
has been very general and across the board.
What lessons have you and
ebrary taken away from the success and failures of competitors
such as netLibrary and Questia?
Don't grow too
fast. We have learned a lot from both of them. For a while we
were thinking that it might be better for us to beat Questia
to going live. Then we decided that this business is brand
new, and we didn't want to do anything too hastily that we
wouldn't be able to correct. So we literally decided that it
is better to go slow and grow according to the plan that we
had set up. We wanted to see if we are right about our plan
and most importantly to make sure that we provide a valuable
service to libraries and publishers. We spent a lot of time
talking to libraries and are still in the process in terms of
setting the system up so that this can be successful for
publishers. The one thing that we need to be able to show is
that we can generate enough revenue for this to continue to be
interesting for publishers. We've been working with libraries
and publishers all along to find out how we can develop a
platform for their mutual benefit. We think we have got it
nailed down. This summer and fall should really be a time of
tremendous growth for us.
How do you go about getting
input from libraries?
We have focus
groups. We have libraries that are customers, and we talk with
our customers a lot. We have feedback mechanisms on the site.
Recently we learned from librarian feedback, and this wasn't a
surprise to us, that they needed to be able to browse our
titles, and so this week we are releasing the ability for them
to see our content and be able to browse through it by subject
category. Our 2.0 and 2.1 versions were our first offerings
for libraries, and we view our relationship with libraries as
a long-term relationship. We want to get the feedback from the
libraries in order to build the product that libraries would
ultimately like to have. So when we get libraries to sign up
with us, we very much pay attention to their wishes and needs.
Do you have any librarians on
No, but we have
several librarians working as consultants for us. We are a
software company, and it is a lot better for us to hire
contractors or consultants that are librarians, that
absolutely specialise in their field and know everyone in
their field that we need to talk to. Using consultants in this
capacity makes more sense than trying to hire librarians for a
software company that is developing is an electronic
When do you expect that ebrary
will be profitable?
projecting a profit for early next year, but we can see it
happening sooner than that.
The ebook marketplace includes
dedicated ebook devices, ebook software for Palms, desktops
and laptops, as well as browser-based online ebook systems,
such as ebrary. Where do you think all of this is heading?
What is your vision of the future of ebooks?
I have never
been a big proponent of ebooks. I have never viewed ebrary as
being an ebook company. I don't think ebooks make a lot of
sense for publishers, because I don't think that the market
really wants them. There are other problems that publishers
face that have much more impact on their business than
potentially offering a new file format, such as inventory
management - the pulping of books and documents at the end of
every year. The thing that the computer is really good at is
finding information, and it can find information faster than
anything else out there. Books are really good at providing a
snapshot of an idea at a particular place in time that can't
be modified. What we see is that there are over 500 million
people on the planet that access the internet. They do 100
million searches per day. What we want to do is essentially
enable the user to get access to the information online - to
have the internet fulfil its destiny as being the greatest
library that the world has ever seen. If the internet is able
to do that, potentially everyone globally benefits.
We feel that
publishers and libraries are absolutely critical to the
success of this potential. Libraries can go through and
quickly separate the chafe from the nuggets and help people
find the most authoritative information more quickly.
Libraries provide a filtering mechanism, essentially, for the
information that is out on the internet, and they do that
through the communities that they service. Publishers provide
the means for authoritative, authentic information to be
created. Those are two roles that our society cannot do
without. The internet has the fundamental potential for the
democratisation of information. We recognise that the
publishers need to be paid and that the libraries play the
most critical role in terms of ensuring that the information
stay accessible to their patrons. By working both with
publishers and libraries, we think we can be a minor player in
the transition of the information on the internet from being
predominately marketing-based information from corporations
and media-based in terms of news, to really the information
that helped shape our civilisation and society.
So, if ebrary is not an ebook
company, how would you describe ebrary in a
We are an
electronic platform for the secure distribution, delivery and
retrieval of authoritative and valuable information