Safari Books Online, a joint venture between technology book publishing giants O'Reilly and Pearson Technologies, has managed to succeed in the ebook market where so many others have failed. Rather than cutting a wide swath, the company focuses on targeting specific markets where users need quick access to accurate technology information.
Safari Books offers an individual subscription service for $14.99 or $19.99 per month (corporate and library subscriber prices vary) to access the full text of books from publishers such as O'Reilly, Que, Sams, Microsoft Press, New Riders, Peachpit, and other top names in the computer book industry. The system works like an electronic library. After conducting a search, subscribers can download and then view the entire book, with privileges to add a certain number of books each month and place them on an electronic bookshelf with the total number of downloads dependent upon the subscription level.
Safari Books does offer several products including its Safari Books Online for individuals; Desk Online, an electronic reference library that provides instant answers to desktop application questions for knowledge workers; Safari Business Books Online, an electronic reference library that provides quick reference about business topics for managers and business professionals; and Safari Enterprise Library, a combination of desktop, business, and technology books specially created for enterprises that purchase more than 500 seats.
Despite its breadth of service-level offerings and high-powered lineup of publishers, Rich Levin, editor-in-chief of Book Tech Magazine, takes a jaundiced view of the ability of the these types of online publishing ventures to succeed. "It is still very much a niche market, with an extremely small base, and it is questionable if it is ever going to achieve critical mass," Levin says. He also points out that Barnes & Noble stopped selling ebooks because they weren't making any money.
Yet Safari seems to be succeeding with ebooks because of their ability to identify specialized markets suited to ebook delivery. Safari has very much been the exception to the generally anemic ebook market and has carved out a stronghold of paying subscribers in the B2C, B2B, and academic library arena. According to Sean Devine, the managing director of Safari Books Online, "The business has burgeoned into a highly profitable, multimillion dollar revenue stream for its publishers in less than three years."
Further, Safari sees themselves as more than an ebook publisher. "Safari's success can be partially attributed to the fact that Safari is not a traditional ebook offering, but a fully searchable ereference library. Users can go to one place to search across thousands of books simultaneously to pinpoint exactly the chapter, section, code fragment, or example they need," Devine says.
Book Tech's Levin, however, questions the usefulness of this type of service for programmers, in particular, when technical information is widely available on the Internet for free. "I'm not sure why anyone would pay to subscribe to this service," wonders Levin, "when the answer to any question a programmer has can be answered instantaneously in a user group."
Devine acknowledges the quantity of free information on the Internet but argues that his service offers subscribers more accurate information. "While free information on the Web is abundant, it is also unvetted and untested. Safari's books are converted directly from the print books which means they have automatically gone through the rigorous QA processes implemented by the publishers." Devine says, but Levin's not so sure saying that, "Technical books don't see lots of editing."
Regardless, Safari's numbers suggest that the venture has been very successful. Though as a private venture, these figures can't be independently confirmed, Safari boasts tens of thousands of individual subscribers in their B2C channel (such as O'Reilly and Pearson's InformIT). What's more, the number of individual subscribers doubled from 2002 to 2003, and they claim that subscribers are renewing at an impressive 93-95 percent rate. In addition, they have approximately 400 paid corporate accounts worldwide, ranging in size from small workgroups and departmental subscriptions to enterprise-wide contracts with as many as 40,000 unique users in an account. Finally, hundreds of thousands of students access Safari through contracts with 400 academic libraries worldwide.
Three years into this venture, Safari appears to be doing very well. "For years the marketplace has shown that they value content from leading publishers such as O'Reilly and Pearson," says Devine."Safari now provides readers with a new and interactive way of accessing that same high quality information."