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A cry for sensible transaction pricing: sellers of digital information should let the thirst define the quench.

The Roman empress Poppaea used to fill her swimming pool with warm goat's milk. She felt it was good for her skin. When it comes to the milk of human kindness these days, the information industry has a splintered approach. Viewed as the ultimate in information philanthropy, the Web seems to follow the Poppaean approach, just letting information seekers paddle around the lactose to their hearts' desire. Heck. The Web will let them drown in milk if they want.

On the other hand, the traditional online vendors and the "soon to be digital" publishers behind them seem caught up in pricing and marketing strategies that view everyone with an Oreo cookie as a probable dairy owner. Concentrating on subscription pricing strategies, some of them not only won't sell you a glass of milk, some want to sell a cow for every type of milk you drink--a buttermilk cow, a skim milk cow, a chocolate milk cow, a cafe latte cow.

We have said it before but will say it again: This is no time for the online industry to turn its back on sensible transaction pricing. Such a policy will only reduce the number of people trained and committed to specific databases at the very time when database providers need every user they can get. It will also turn the most activist community of professional searchers, namely, information brokers, into ardent Web activists by necessity. The withdrawal of practical transactional pricing threatens the ability of information brokers to bill clients, at the very moment that Web hype deludes clients into thinking that any monkey can do a successful online search. Time and tide will bring the clients back to the information brokers. The time wasted "surfing" the tides of Web data will prompt them to hire "anybody but me," preferably someone better for the task.

With all the good, free information on the Web, information brokers who bill by the hour can pocket all the money they get from clients and still bring searches in at well under pricing that shares the take with the traditionals. However, professional searchers don't like to spend their days inefficiently, even when profitable to an extent. They would rather search quickly and effectively and spend the rest of their time improving their products and services and increasing their clientele. With realistic transactional pricing, the traditional information industry could hold professional searchers' loyalty; without it, expect to see a spate of information brokers writing in trade magazines, speaking at professional conferences, and being quoted in newspaper interviews all about the wonderful new ways they have of extracting data from the public Web.

More Than One Ox Being Gored

With the current crisis conditions that prevail within the traditional information industry, it surprises no one to see the industry scrambling to secure its high-volume, high-revenue customers. Offering these users flat-fee, subscription arrangements that may include extended access features that work for whole communities of users makes a lot of sense, particularly for major search services. When we see the same policy applied by individual database producers, however, it becomes somewhat less attractive. When subscription pricing comes from primary publishers beginning to load their publications onto Web outlets, either their own, like Elsevier ScienceDirect, or through other vendors, like EBSCO's Collectanea or OCLC's Electronic Collections Online, sometimes the pricing structure gets downright silly.

The problem with individual database sales, regardless of who sells them, lies in the pressure to force libraries and other information operations to commit their available resources to specific "answers" before, they have heard the client's questions. From the beginning, the whole point--the whole sweet wonder of online searching--lay in the freedom it gave searchers to find whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. No longer did you have to go from one building to another on a campus, or across town, or out of state, just to find a tool that would identify the source for the information you needed. No longer did a client have to have the money, clout, status, whatever to engineer such an effort. Instead, any searcher could search any tool, any time. Unfortunately, budgeting for the searching became as impulse-ridden as the search process.

CD-ROMs became popular in libraries not because of any technological advantage (library-marketed CD-ROMs still have a deplorable lack of the multimedia features that consumer-marketed CD-ROMs offer), but because of the subscription pricing they offered. With fixed, predictable pricing, libraries could open up searching to client end-user communities. Unfortunately, the clients usually had to "schlepp" down to the library to use the one-disc-one-workstation product. Even networking had its problems, because CD-ROMs tend to operate slower than lots of network users expect.

Now CD-ROM producers have begun offering Web versions of their products. This way they can expand their sales to libraries that do not want to spend their staff's time nurturing CD-ROM workstations. With Web-based services, subscribing libraries can get round-the-clock service expandable to any number of users and to users in any number of geographic locations. The database producers can also begin to form direct relationships with end users and, one hopes, begin to design or adapt products that will satisfy end-user needs, build a volume market, and lower the price. One hopes? Or one dreams?

Actually, once they get started, most database producers seem scared stiff of working directly with end-user searchers. (And aren't professional searchers everywhere snickering, "Told you so! Not as easy as it looks, is it?") Information Access Company has withdrawn its Cognito! Web service. Profound went from a $29.95 a month service at launch to more like $200 a month, and that will clear out the punters fast. With the longest tradition of working directly with end users among the traditionals, LEXIS-NEXIS still had not released a system-wide Web-based service by the beginning of 1998.

Primary Problems

The only ones who seem completely ready to lock and load on the Web are the primary publishers, and their pricing approach seems doomed from the cradle. They want to keep charging everyone the same annual subscription fees, title by title, that they have always charged. In its earliest form, OCLC's Electronic Collections Online (ECO) actually required a subscriber to place individual subscription orders for each title with each individual publisher. When approved, Their Majesties, the scholarly publishers, would instruct OCLC to release a year's worth of data to the lucky winner of their favors.

Puh-leez!! I don't know any academic librarians, obviously the prime market, who would endure that kind of periodicals management for print, much less the allegedly more convenient milieu of digital delivery. When last heard from, OCLC had begun offering digital periodical "jobbing," the same as EBSCO and other services offer for print. That would seem the least they could do--the very least.

Even in print, primary publishers have earned the anger of librarians around the world. Late in 1997 at Purdue University, the anger spread and surged around online service. The story even made The New York Times [Kenneth N. Gilpin, "Concerns About an Aggressive Publishing Giant," Late Edition, colt 1, p. 2, Monday, December 29, 1997; available on LEXIS-NEXIS (NYT)]. Instead of just facing grim-faced librarians, the president of Elsevier Science, Inc., Russell White, faced a group of professors and told them that Purdue could get access to 350 online publications for only an annual increase of 9.5 percent, if they agreed to a 3-year subscription. The professors not only rejected this oh-so-generous offer, they said that the quality of Elsevier publications was not worth the money. To quote one professor, as The New York Times did: "Reed Elsevier journals tend to be second- and third-tier publications, which range from the acceptable to the terrible ... Why do we want to buy garbage at a 9.5 percent price increase?" Purdue's library had already cut 88 of the 803 titles it once received, including Brain Research (annual cost $ 14,919), Mutation Research ($7,378), and Tetrahedron With Tetrahedron: Asymmetry ($8,506).

Rebellion among faculty readers? Who would have thought it? How long before the rebellion extends to the faculty authors? The article in The Times even mentioned that Reed, like other scholarly publishers, "demands, and gets, copyrights to the articles from the authors, and in most cases pays them nothing." Maybe no one will follow Purdue's lead. After all, Elsevier has charged double-digit increases for years and has still seen high renewal rates.

Trying to take the old order model into the new world of digital delivery may be the step that finally trips primary publishers up. Basically, that's like trying to charge people money for things they don't want. When people pay in advance for digital products that they end up never using, it feels like buying nothing. It hurts. At least with print materials, they see it. They may even think it has something they should read, even if they don't. But, not with digital materials--usage is everything.

Cows vs. Pails

If you publishers or database producers want to sell digital information in bulk, don't make the bulk a cow that kicks, make it a pail. At least with a pail, people can see the milk, hear it slosh. What do I mean by a "pail?" I mean a collection of answers, the true milk of the online users' world! Primary publishers should not sell journals title by title. They should sell buckets of articles. They should not define the articles that will go in each bucket before the user asks. They should let the thirst define the quench. Sell 50, 100, 500, 1,000 articles from a publisher's entire set of digital works. Sell access. If you want to get more money out of a client, give more value. Hyperlink from footnotes or to forward citations (articles published later citing the article in hand) and offer those articles at half-price.

Pump up the volume. Remember, in a digital arena, usage is everything. Your customers no longer have a building or masses of shelving they can point to and say, "There lies what our money has bought." Smiling faces, busy keyboarding fingers, clients wanting to increase their quota of articles--these are the signs of a successful purchase decision to digital librarians. These signs will result in renewals and extensions.

As for you traditional online services, supermarket search services, database aggregators, and megabase abstracting services, lord knows you have more troubles and tasks than fingers and toes. Don't add to them by pushing customers away. Offer any client anything you have under any price structure that suits the client. If you hope to force clients to choose your service and none other by tying up their money a year or more in advance, you have chosen a fatally short-term policy. With the Web offering something for nothing over every media outlet known to humankind, professional searchers and librarians cannot afford that kind of "suicide pact" loyalty. Service to their clients and to their own future careers would require them to spend their energies improving the future and the Web, not protecting the past.

Of course, if you traditionals ever decide to start solving the Web's problems, instead of trying to compete with it or just riding alongside--well, that's a cow of another color!

Barbara Quint is editor in chief of Information Today, Inc.'s Searcher: The Magazine for Database Professionals and a longtime online searcher Her Internet address is
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Author:Quint, Barbara
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Column
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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