Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 2 February 2001
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IT Interview
Questia Provides Digital Library, Research Tools
Company president and CEO Troy Williams discusses details of the new research service
by Paula J. Hane

Houston-based Questia Media, Inc. hopes to transform the nature of academic research. We talked with its founder, president, and CEO, Troy Williams,in mid-January, just before the launch of its research service. After 2-1/2 years of planning and development, Questia provides online access to a core liberal arts collection of about 50,000 digitized books and offers full-text searching and research applications. The subscription service is being marketed directly to college students. Williams hopes it will become as indispensable to them as word processing, and that the Questia collection will enhance and complement library collections.

Q Tell our readers a bit about your vision for an online library of books.

A The concept has always been something that most of us involved with the Internet thought would happen one day, which is online access to all the books in the library. The Internet is really about access to information, and some of our most important information is still locked in books. The original concept came to me as I was working as an editor on the Harvard Law Review. Having the ability to search the full text of legal cases but not being able to do the same for books was very striking to me.Our Questia service enables a student to get online and search the full text of tens of thousands of books and journal articles that have been previously published by the leading publishers. They can search them, access them, and interact with them in sophisticated ways--and it helps them write a better research paper.

Q It looks like you are moving beyond some of the previous noncommercial digital-text projects--such as Project Gutenberg and others, which were limited in scope and functions--and the products of volunteer efforts.

A There are two things here. First,there's the size and scope of the project, and second, Questia really is an application and not just a collection of texts. You can't have a viable collection with 2,000 or 3,000--or even 10,000--texts. To make a holistic, broad, and viable collection that any liberal arts student could come to and find materials to help with research papers, you need 30,000 to 40,000 texts. Questia is really the first company to go out there to build this collection.

The other thing is that selection is very important. We hired 10 collection-development librarians who hand-picked the most valuable texts, and we then got the rights for those. The careful selection of texts is what makes this project possible with only about 50,000 books, which is a massive online project and yet is small compared to today's physical libraries. We think that because every student can have their own copy of all 50,000 texts, and that no text is ever checked out, this is a viable service. So, size and scope are critical to our endeavor.

At launch now (in January) we'll have just under 50,000, and we will hit our 50,000 target early in February. If we took every text that publishers wanted to give us, we could have over 100,000. But, we chose to focus only in the liberal arts and there were other texts that we didn't feel were worthwhile to put online.

Q Publishers have a number of other digital distribution outlets available to them, like netLibrary and others. How are you getting them to buy into your service?

A We have signed up 170 publishers to date, so clearly, the publishers are interested. The reason is that we have found that if you put the full text of a book online, it increases print copy sales. We require people to pay for access to it, so that's a benefit for publishers. Secondly, many of these are older titles--they are not brand-new books. Many are out of print. If you look at the valuable books in a library, most of the ones being checked out have not been published in the last few years. We've picked the most valuable of these to be digitized. In many cases, publishers are not making money on these older titles. We are turning that into a revenue stream for the publishers by paying them every time someone accesses a page. We're monetizing the demand that exists. These books are checked out frequently by undergraduates from libraries and photocopied, but the publisher doesn't see revenue from that. This really is a better business model for publishers in that they continue to make revenue for a longer period of time. Books typically go out of print in about 7 years, but may retain their value for 30 years or more.

Q So, this is a differentiator of your service from netLibrary (http://www.netlibrary.com), which is selling the electronic text to a library, which then checks that title out to one patron at a time. That's a different business model and a different revenue model for publishers.

A I don't want to comment too much on their business model, but yes, it is different--libraries loan out copies they have purchased. For an individual Questia user, a monthly subscription fee of $19.95 provides unlimited access to a collection of 50,000 books, which we will grow to a quarter of a million books in the next 3 years.

Q Any other pricing options, or pay per view?

A There is no pay per view. There is an annual subscription fee of $149.95. For those of us who do our papers at the last minute, there is a 48-hour subscription for $14.95.

Q There seems to be a race on now to digitize copyrighted texts--a number of companies are in this space. We've talked about netLibrary for one. There's also ebrary (http://www.ebrary.com), which is preparing to launch a similar kind of service to Questia. I know they plan to offer free viewing with very small fee payments for copying and printing. Are you going after the same content, publishers, and audience?

A I don't think so. I'm not sure who they are going after and they haven't really announced how many publishers they have. We've been at this for a lot longer. I don't believe that ebrary is digitizing any texts but is taking the texts from the publishers already in electronic form. Users view their books for free, but pay for printing or to cut and paste.

Questia has done a tremendous amount of market research and we've found that students don't want the pay-per-use model. They want a set fee and unlimited access. Philosophically, we believe we have the better approach. Questia tries to inspire individuals to explore that collection of books and spend time in it. If there's a pay-per-use fee it will limit this exploration.

Q So, you are actually digitizing texts for the publishers.

A Yes, in almost all cases we're digitizing the texts, because in most cases, these are not new books. Typically, a lot of other projects that are putting texts online are trying to sell e-books, or sell copies of new books. Questia is trying to provide a holistic research environment in which students can have access to a world-class collection of content, and it enables them to write better research papers faster and better by providing them with tools that integrate with their word processor.

Q What search engine does Questia use, and what access points and capabilities are provided?

A We use the ConText search engine from Oracle. All searching is free, by the way. Someone coming to the site can do three types of searches. First there's a quick keyword search on titles, authors, and Library of Congress subjects. Second, there's an explore-by-topic search where the user drills down through the subject categories--kind of a Yahoo!-like hierarchy. Third, users can do a full-text Boolean search, with adjacency, exclusions, etc. That's the first timeyou can really do that on a library collection. It's an incredibly powerful tool that we provide for everyone.

Q What format is used for the texts, PDF, Open eBook (OeB), or what? And, what does a search actually retrieve--a page, a chapter, the entire volume?

A Everything is formatted using XML. We're OeB-compliant but we've done more.We retain the original pagination and even the original line breaks of the books. We do a lot of content tagging. It's a very time-consuming and costly process, which is why it's taken 2-1/2 years to launch the product.

A search result shows a list of books with page numbers, with full bibliographic data. A student could print out that search result and go to the library to find those books, having used Questia for free to do a more powerful search. If they are a subscriber, they can click on a result and are shown a page at a time. They can move forward and backward through the book, they can jump to any page that they want. They can go to the index, which is hyperlinked back through the book. The footnotes and bibliography are also hyperlinked to other books in our collection. They can seamlessly consult a number of books very quickly and follow the author's chain of thought.

Q I saw a mention on your site about adding scholarly journals to the project. In this space, there already are a number of companies providing digital journals. Do you still plan to include this in Questia?

A Yes, we will have a number of journal titles available after launch, and there are hundreds more we are adding the first part of this year. The journals are from scholarly publishers. We have signed a lot of university presses--Stanford, Oxford, Harvard, Cornell, University of Chicago, Columbia, and many others--as well as a number of commercial houses, such as Lawrence Erlbaum.

Q From their perspective, as long as there is no exclusive contract, they can go to as many distributors as they want. It's just increased revenue for them to have the additional exposure.

AYes, and we're going back and digitizing older volumes for them. There's a difference though in what we're offering. Questia is not an online library--it's an application tool. It's a tool that I believe will become as indispensable for going to college as having a word processor. It means a student can do a full-text search online, access the book, [and] hyperlink through the footnotes and bibliography to more books that are relevant very quickly.

Questia keeps track of what books the student has used and will automatically create a bibliography. When they find a piece of text that they want to quote or cite, they can select it, [and] cut and paste it into their word processor. The service will ask, "Do you want to cite this as a footnote, an endnote, or a parenthetical?" It will then ask what style is desired: MLA Handbook, Chicago Manual, Turabian, or a number of others. When it's pasted, the passage will have quotation marks around it and a footnote will appear in the correct format. They can save their papers up to the site, so that when they travel about campus or home, they have access to the books in the collection and all of the papers they've written. They can highlight in these books, write in the margins, and more. It's really a research environment that becomes a personal tool of each student.

We've done our market research. The concept of searching and accessing books online was not what excited students--but when we showed them the research application that worked with their word processor, they said, "We have to have this." And, at $19.95, we've made it affordable.

Q I wish I had had this in college--it sounds wonderful!

A There's a lot of other places people can go to get research, but that's not the real value-add that Questia provides. The real value is in the holistic, research environment. But, the most difficult piece for us has been building the collection, not building the tools.

Q Besides having the books available to them online, are users allowed to download or print anything?

A Users can print one page at a time, but they can't download anything. This is a service where they need to be connected to the Internet, because all their personal work is saved. By not providing for downloads, we get around all the digital rights management issues that the e-book industry is struggling with.

Q I understand that you are marketing Questia directly to college students. Are you involving academic librarians at all? Are you hoping they will help you spread the word?

A Yes, absolutely. I just spent the last few days at the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association [ALA]. We were there because we want the library community's input on how we can make the service better. We have established a librarian advisory council, which includes people like Sue Phillips from the University of Texas and Ann Okerson from Yale, and other key people in collection development. We're also taking recommendations from faculty members.

We view Questia as a complement to library collections. No library can fully service the demand for a particular book when the demand spikes. That's why they have reserve rooms. There may be 100 students on campus who want the same book on the same night. Questia has an unlimited number of copies of a text--we could have a million people looking at the same page of the same book. A librarian could say: "That copy is checked out. You could request it on ILL from another university, or if you need it tonight, you can get it on Questia." It will enable them to get more people access to books.

As far as marketing to the library community, we were at ALA to listen to ideas on how we might do that. There have been concerns among the publishers. They do not want us to site-license the service to libraries, fearing it would cut print copy purchases by libraries. I think that libraries would continue to buy the print, but it will take us some time to work out arrangements. That said, there may be other ways to work with institutions, maybe in defraying costs for students, or something else. But, we have no current plans to pursue institutional sales.

Q There's also a big difference between a student looking at one page at a time on screen and even hyperlinking through text, and having the physical book to read the entire text. Libraries will still need to provide the physical texts.

A Yes, there's two more points. We do believe people who want to read that text will go into the library and borrow it. Second, we think it's going to increase patronage in a library. If the result of a full-text search identifies 12 books with specific, relevant paragraphs, then a student can go into a library with confidence. Now, when students go into a library, many have trepidation about spending hours looking and not finding relevant books. Our market research showed that the process of identifying that first relevant book took the most amount of time. Once they find that first one, they have a hook to find more. Questia, with its full-text searching, enables them to identify that first book very quickly.

Q From your discussion, it's easy to see how different Questia is from companies selling e-books. But, do you ever envision moving into this area?

A We have the largest collection of electronic books in the world, I think. That said, I'm not a big believer in the e-book market in the next 2 or 3 years. There's a proliferation of file formats today, and the industry needs to shake this out and determine which is best. I also think that the consumer demand just isn't there yet. It will take time to grow and eventually will be there. The window of opportunity hasn't quite opened.

In contrast, there is a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for using the Internet to write better research papers. Today, many students use the Internet but just can't find good, credible resources. So, rather than go to their library to use good-quality resources they use poor-quality Internet resources. What we offer is a collection of first-rate books and journals. It gives librarians and faculty members a place to direct students on the Internet.

Q I've heard that you have raised $135 million in funding, so there are others who really believe in your vision. That's a strong endorsement.

A Yes, and we've raised $130 million of that since the market began to tank last March. It's an endorsement of how we've built this business. Many of the dot-coms were built on the following model: build a prototype in 3 months, launch the product, and go public within a year. Ours is a new-economy company built the old-economy way. We hired a great management team first, and did a tremendous amount of market research on where real market need exists. We then built a product around that need, and had the patience to build it to the size and scope that it required. We built a great marketing plan that doesn't depend on Super Bowl ads. We built the foundation, and we're very confident that we'll be extremely successful. We're trying to be a long-term publishing partner for the publishers, and a long-term complementary service to libraries.

For more information, contact Questia Media, Inc. at 713/358-2500, or visit http://www.questia.com.
 
 

Paula J. Hane, co-editor with Barbara Quint for NewsBreaks, is contributing editor of Information Today, a former reference librarian, and a longtime online searcher. Her e-mail address is phane@ infotoday.com.

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