Reference Service Promises New Royalty Channel

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Questia Media Inc. is out to change the definition of royalty for book publishers.

The start-up plans to launch its service next January offering 50,000 books online to college students for a monthly or annual subscription fee. Each time a student accesses a page to research, the publisher will get paid for that view.

"You talk about the publishing industry in the last millennium, revenues have always been based on a per-book basis," said Troy Williams, CEO of Questia, Houston. "We're going to disaggregate that into a per-page basis."

For publishers, this new channel of royalty is incremental revenue at no extra expense, Williams said. Questia will bear all the costs of creating electronic versions of these books, including proofing and putting the tomes online.

"What the [book publishing] industry has found is that if the electronic version of the book is online in full text, it actually increases print copy sales because people begin to browse it online but go out and buy a print copy for actually reading it," he said.

Questia will target college students who normally flock to libraries for researching their term papers.

The password-protected service will allow students to access an array of 19th- and 20th-century scholarly works that will be digitized, research papers, annotate and save passages, link to other books via footnotes and write them online. The subscription fee has not been fixed.

Questia sees a big market for its service. At last count, there were 12.3 million undergraduate and 1.7 million graduate students in the United States.

Though Questia has yet to firm its marketing plans, it will use geography-based promotions and the like to lure students to its service. The Internet, print media and grassroots efforts will play a key role.

"The college is a space where viral marketing works very well," Williams said, adding that his company will work on campuses to "get students excited [in a place] where they're actually going to use the service."

The company will track student page-viewing habits and sell this data on an aggregate basis to publishers, who may use the information to increase print runs or publish another book based on titles or subjects that are accessed frequently.

The goal is to have around 250,000 books within three years on subjects like economics, history, anthropology, philosophy, political science and sociology. This collection will be larger than 80 percent of all academic libraries in the United States.

Nearly 70 publishers, most of them academic presses, have bought into Questia's vision. Some of the participating universities include Duke University Press, Columbia University Press, North Carolina University Press, University of Nebraska Press and University of Hawaii Press.

Questia may have a first-mover advantage, but its archive has to reach critical mass for it to accomplish goals. Apart from the fact that all arrangements are nonexclusive, it needs permission from hundreds of publishers dotting the country.

"I think getting the rights is the largest challenge we face," Williams admits. "For virtually every book on the service, we have to get clearance from the publishers."

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