ACCESS | Asia 's Newspaper on Electronic Information Product & Service
June 2002 No.41  
   In this issue

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 interview.
  From where did the idea for ebrary come? What is ebrary's "creation myth"?
 
In 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 me.
 
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.
 
  What 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 business.
 
  I 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 transactions.
 
  Will 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. 
 
  Are MARC records included?
 
Yes and as new content is added to the collection, the new MARC records will be provided.
 
  How 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.
 
  What do you now consider to be ebrary's primary market?
 
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.
 
  What methods have you found to be the most effective in marketing ebrary?
 
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.
 
  What 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 issues.
 
  So it 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 usage.
 
  What do you predict to be the growth rate of ebrary's collection?
 
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.
 
 
Christopher Warnock 
 
From the 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 level?
 
As with 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 ebrary?
 
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 absolutely protected.
 
  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 heavily?
 
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 staff?
 
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 publishing platform.
 
  When do you expect that ebrary will be profitable?
 
We are 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 sentence?
 
We are an electronic platform for the secure distribution, delivery and retrieval of authoritative and valuable information online. 
 
(Interview conducted by Susan Gibbons. Source: Librarian's eBook Newsletter 2(4) April 2002)
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