Corporate libraries have undergone a huge shift over the last couple of decades. The paper based library had to re-invent itself as a digital resource. For years now, information that used to be the domain of the library not only went digital but also physically left the library and landed on individual desktops, and more recently on cell phones, iPads and Kindles. A lot of this digital content cost you no more than your time to register with whatever service you needed. Now the New York Times is changing the game… which is hardly unexpected. The Times was one of the earliest “important” publications to go digital, and has had the most corporate impact for Fortune 500 firms due to their large circulation and the extensive number of executives with paper subscriptions. Just about everyone I know now reads the free electronic version of the Times at least once or twice a week, if not every day. All that may change over the next couple of weeks as the Times moves to an (almost) all paid digital model.
It was inevitable that as more and more services became digital, especially the best of these services, that traditional media firms have got to make their digital services… paid services. We’ve all seen stories about the decline of print media. The decline has not just been in terms of readership of their print services, but in revenue as well. New services that started out as digital have been charging for years, and now it’s time for the free services to catch up. IPad, Nook and Kindle sales run into the millions and smartphones have begun delivering true 4G performance; it increasingly makes sense as an end user to spend more time using digital services. While this is one of the more important milestones of the move to digital, I find that I am instead particularly annoyed by a smaller, less important story.
About a week ago, Harper Collins put a limit on the life of an e-book. Now when you buy one of their e-books, after it’s been read 26 times… “POOF” it’s gone. There’s not much that you’re going to read 26 times, except maybe an atlas, a dictionary or a cookbook. This is really aimed at public libraries, where a digital book could live on forever. But should a book disintegrate when you read it 26 times? It seems to me that there are physical books that have been checked out hundreds of times and are still in one piece. Alternatively, do publishers think of e-books as being more like their low-end products, like a paperback? The paperback revolution back in the 50’s and 60’s used the paperback as a way to sell a lot of materials cheaply, in a more or less disposable form. If e-books are the new paperback, I’m not sure what this reveals about the industry’s thinking, but it doesn’t seem to be particularly flattering.
If you run a corporate library, the plans made by Harper Collins may not interest you… at least not yet. However, this does feel like a significant shift. For years, traditional media providers have been giving us incentives and making encouraging gestures so that we move to digital. But now we’re seeing scattered signs of pullback and disincentives. Years ago you were a pioneer when you used digital media, and it felt good to be a pioneer. But now we’re just part of the crowd, the settlers who have grown comfortable with what we have. Unfortunately, just about the time you’ve settled into your space on the digital frontier, it’s time for the taxman to show up. And the taxman matters. How many digital Times (and other free media) subscribers do you have? Will they want the corporation to pick up the charge, if they start getting a bill? Like many organizations you probably outsourced the management of your subscription services long ago, not only maximizing subscription discounts but also letting someone else deal with your CFO’s missing copy of the Wall Street Journal. Will subscription services be an effective solution as more subscriptions turn digital? Will your e-subscriptions be offered as large a group discount as your paper subscriptions? Alternatively, do you have more to gain by forming a new alliance with your own IT department, so you can tackle the next call from a C-Suite officer with problems reading a news story on their Android phone?
No real answers today, just a lot of questions about the next round of the digital revolution. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!