Ebooks Worm Their Way into the Reference Market

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Back in 2000 when it looked as though the entire world's content would soon be digitized, a myth developed that in the not-too-distant future, paper books would be supplanted by electronic books (ebooks). In this scenario, we would all be carrying ebook readers, and the bookstore as we know it would become a thing of the past. That vision (thankfully) has not come to fruition, but ebooks are making a comeback in a different guise. Today's ebooks are more likely to be online reference books than the latest bestseller. In the reference model, users can search across a database of books and find answers to queries in a variety of sources, rather than reading the entire book.

Today, as knowledge workers hunger for access to accurate information online, the online book market fills a niche inside the enterprise, not unlike other online information vendors such as LexisNexis, by providing a searchable database filled with content from (mostly) technical books. This article looks at the state of the online reference ebook market in 2005 and why it has a growing appeal to users, publishers, and authors.

Ebooks Begin a Come Back
Chuck Richard, VP and lead analyst at Outsell, watches the content aggregator, news, and trade space. He says he has seen a gradual revival in the ebook channel over the past year or two, although he cautions that it is still a measured upturn. "People had been writing off ebooks as a tool that didn't fit a need, but there has been a resurgence on the corporate and academic side, although it is nothing like a major trend," Richard says.

According to Richard, this finding is consistent with the trend he has been seeing in which users are returning to corporate-supplied resources on company intranets or information found inside enterprise knowledge management systems from a period where they mainly turned to the open Web for information. To some extent, he attributes this change to knowledge worker frustration over finding accurate answers using Web sources and search engines for all of their needs. He says that people are using online reference books as a quick, accurate way to find the exact information they need. "People are using them to solve specific problems or to look up facts, as opposed to reading from cover to cover the way you would read a book on the beach," Richard says.

He says his research has shown that when companies purchase online reference materials, it has wide appeal to workers in the organization. He cites one company (which wanted to remain anonymous) in his study that purchased 1,000 Safari seats, all taken within 48 hours of announcing the availability of the service. "People desperately wanted it. The company had instant sign-ups and a waiting list of more than 600 people," Richard says.

Adding Value
Vendors agree that one of the reasons ebooks failed in their initial iteration was that the early vendors did not add any value to the electronic versions of books. Without any additional value, there was little motivation for consumers to buy the ebooks when the paper book worked perfectly fine. Sean Devine, managing director of the Safari Books Online reference book service, a joint venture of technical publishing giants O'Reilly and Pearson Technologies, says he compares his company more to an online database information aggregator like Factiva than to the original idea of an ebook. 

"The fundamental difference between Safari and the typical ebook model is that it is a database of books. It is very much like a virtual reference library where a user is able to search across content, get relevancy ranked search results to answer their specific query and then view the content immediately in a Web browser," Devine says. He believes this approach is fundamentally different from the original ebook vision where the user was expected to sit down and read a complete book. "When you are actually looking for answers in a reference environment, the ability to search and access and retrieve is arguably a better use mode," Devine says. 

John Ambrose, VP and general manager at Books24x7, says that when his company moved to the online reference model back in 1999, its approach—placing reference books in an online database, rather than using an ebook reading device—was a revolutionary idea. "People in the early ebook industry believed that people would run out and buy individual electronic books, but we never subscribed to that thesis," he says. "We have always believed that our strength was in the corporate market and that if you could transform the content of good professional reference books into something that has even more value than the sum of the original books, we could build a market in the corporate space, and that's what we have pursued and done very successfully," Ambrose concludes. 

 One way William Woishnis, president and cofounder of online reference vendor Knovel, says his company differentiates itself from the ebooks by providing ways to use the data online that would not be possible in the paper world. "We've been doing this a long time. Our technology started in the early 1990s and has evolved. We've added levels of interactivity and usefulness that nobody else can, such as live graphs, live equations, and interactive tables," Woishnis says. Richard says that the Knovel approach has tapped into a trend to use this information within a user's daily workflow. He says that instead of having to look up a table or a formula in a book and then literally type the information, a user can access the information electronically and copy it into their work and continue working. "This takes care of a step and also draws the content into the project or research the user is doing directly and this creates a much closer tie to what the user is doing," Richard says.

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