Content is King at World Book
World Book Inc.'s (WB) book-and-CD products were all the rage back in August 1998 when BookTech the Magazine ran a cover story on this Chicago-based company.
WB had just launched the book-and-CD educational series titled Interfact, and its flagship product, the World Book Encyclopedia, was being released as 22 print volumes (comprising more than 14,000 pages) and as a two-disc CD-ROM.
Since then, WB took its content to different places, including the Internet, not just carving a niche for itself in the education and general consumer markets, but continually exploring new publishing models, as well.
Michael Ross, executive vice president and publisher (pictured at right), brings us up to date on his company's new initiatives and shares his insights on successful data management.
What's up, Doc?
Back in 1998, sales of the flagship WB Encyclopedia accounted for roughly half of the company's revenues. WB products also included a wide range of science, math, nature and social studies titles, as well as yearbooks and the two series Christmas Around the World and Stand Up for Your Rights (the latter covers human rights issues). The Interfact series (a book with a CD-ROM packaged in clear acrylic) sold for about $15.
Today, WB still offers its encyclopedia in 22 volumes, but its versions and formats have been broadened considerably. The set, says Ross, is now available in three bindings, including one specifically designed for schools and libraries that includes a dated spine.
The content is offered in various CD-ROM versions for both Mac and Windows: a two-disc deluxe set, a standard one-disc set, and a four-disc Premier Reference Suite (new since 1998).
WB also introduced myriad new print and CD products for schools, including a 13-volume elementary encyclopedia titled World Book's Student Discovery Encyclopedia; a new CD-ROM called Dinosaur Dig Cyber Adventure; and a new 15-volume Childcraft set, a classic "how-and-why," thematically arranged reference library for kids.
Indeed, Childcraft is the first major revision of the series in 10 years; it went on press at the time Ross was interviewed in May. Also on press was the 10-volume series Animals of the World. Ten more volumes are scheduled for fall release, says Ross. Altogether, 40 volumes of Animals of the World are planned, in both print and digital format and for online distribution.
Online subscription service
Another new initiative is WB's online subscription service, available to consumers for $50 per year. The content, offered in American English and British English, is comprised of all articles from the 22-volume print set of the World Book Encyclopedia; about 3,200 additional stories; Web links to other articles, periodicals, newspapers, photos, maps, videos, bubble views and animation; and much more.
"All content is Web-enabled by a separate development team that handles programming and interface experience," says Ross. "The databases are in SGML, and are converted to HTML and XTML."
The service offers continually updated features such as "What's New," "Today in History," "Feature of the Month," "Behind the Headlines," "What's Happening This Month?" and "Subscriber News."
The differences between the American and British editions are many, Ross explains. For example, the British English edition has more in-depth information on other countries, while the American English version offers extensive state-by-state coverage.
This month, Ross reports, WB started offering a global version of its online service, which will allow users to go back and forth between the American and British English versions.
The sales revenue from WB's online service grew more than three times during the past year, Ross reports. "We don't see a huge increase necessarily in e-commerce as much as a sales increase from our online service, World Book Online," he muses. "That's our jewel."
"The question," he continues, "is, what's the right business model that will allow us to get the revenues we need to continue to put the quality we expect into the product."
Then there's WB's licensing agreement with New York City-based Versaware, an Internet publisher and software developer that provides e-publishing services (with a focus on the educational market). Digital content is sold via the Versaware Web site and co-branded e-book stores through partnerships. Versaware also developed a Versabook format (Open eBook-compliant and downloadable to various reading devices).
"We have several new products -- sold as downloads or as CDs -- with Versaware," Ross reveals, "including our children's illustrated dictionary, atlas, a geography program and a science program. If these are successful, we'll do more."
In 1998, WB's retail products were distributed through an arrangement with Random House, with a return rate as low as 1 to 2 percent. Since then, WB stopped distributing through Random House and trade houses altogether.
Instead, Ross says, WB focuses on selling directly to the customer through its school and library sales force, its Web site and direct mail, and specialized wholesale companies that are prepared to accept WB products on a non-returnable basis.
"We're out of the trade," he explains. "We made a strategic decision not to sell to the bookstore chains anymore. It's not a profitable activity. The returns were killing us.
"We're using the Internet," Ross sums up. "We're going direct to the consumer. We're on a path to have all of our products available through e-commerce within the next month or so."
Selling on the Web is becoming increasingly important for his company, Ross points out, although sales from direct mail and the 800 phone line currently comprise most of WB's consumer-generated revenues.
In its online bookstore (coming soon), instead of referring customers to the 800 number, as it does now on its Web site, WB will offer a full range of products for sale, with easy ordering right from the Web site.
So how does a company that handles so much content daily store it? Electronically, of course.
"Everything new we do is stored electronically, on CDs, on our server, with backup," Ross says, adding that WB creates pages in QPS and uses various databases to store images and text-only documents.
The big project is to convert all legacy materials into digital format. Currently, the company does that on an as-needed basis, for example, when a series is up for a revision. It's not cost-justified to transfer all files into digital format, says Ross.
"We're happy with the systems we have, though they've gone through significant upgrades," he notes. "Our electronic storage systems are constantly being revised and upgraded.
"We continue to scale the technologies we use for greater electronic access and ease of use," Ross summarizes.
"From my point of view, we're content providers. We're neutral about what media it gets disseminated into, as long as the product is easy to use."