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Publishers dig into online research services

Random House, Pearson and McGraw-Hill are backing start-up Ebrary.com, an online version of a library research room, searching for a promising niche in digital publishing.

    Three major publishing companies are backing start-up Ebrary.com, an online version of a library research room, searching for a promising niche in digital publishing.

    Random House, Pearson and McGraw-Hill on Tuesday announced their joint financial investment in Ebrary, which lets people research and read articles and books online for free but charges for printed copies.

    Ebrary said its service, which will be available in November, lets researchers scour full-text documents derived from its collection of books, as well as periodicals, maps and other digitized documents. The setup will duplicate many of the functions of a typical research library, with no checkout privileges but access to a copy machine.

    The terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

    The investment comes as publishers move into the digital arena with e-book initiatives and other experiments that tap the Net. The market for digital novels and other leisure reading material is largely unproven. However, the PC already has become a nearly indispensable source for researching.

    Analysts say providing reference and textbook research is a good digital publishing move because consumers haven't fully embraced e-books yet.

    "These kind of investments are a vote of confidence in a particular kind of digital publishing," Forrester analyst Dan O'Brien said. "Rather than wait (for e-books to emerge), there's all kinds of things you can do once you have digital data. Publishers are starting to wake up to incremental revenue possibilities, and Ebrary is a good example."

    Random House, which opened up its e-book division, @random, in July, said that its investment in Ebrary fits into its business strategy and it believes Ebrary is going to transform the way research is done.

    Larry Weissman, director of new business development at Random House, said Ebrary's business model is attractive because it isn't subscription based and people pay only for what they use; typically publishers lose revenues to copy machines.

    Through its research services, Ebrary hopes to not only provide publishers with new revenues but also to increase the exposure of copyright-protected titles in a way that encourages book sales. Ebrary will provide links to online booksellers and local booksellers. The company also said it will compensate libraries when people use Ebrary services at the library.

    "I very hesitantly joke that we are an anti-Napster for the book industry," Ebrary chief executive Christopher Warnock said. "The thing the computer is good at is finding information and cross-referencing information and making information interactive and tying in different media types. We think we got a fantastic chance of being in the right place and the right time to make this feasible."

    Ebrary is not alone in this market. Boulder, Colo.-based NetLibrary, which has partnerships with McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin, takes a slightly different tact by licensing digital books to libraries as if they were physical books.

    Similar to a library, people search for an e-book and then have the option of checking it out, viewing it online, downloading it, or copying and printing single pages. NetLibrary also offers an information and retrieval system to view full-length digital versions of reference, professional and scholarly books.

    Houston-based Questia Media is building similar research services, but it is digitizing books in the liberal arts and humanities studies. The company early next year will make them available to college students and researchers on a subscription basis for a monthly fee. Researchers will be able to use all Questia Media's books rather than one book at a time, such as NetLibrary allows.

    In addition to documents, Ebrary offers a research component that includes hypertext links to related material. Researchers can find and view documents without prepaying or subscribing to the service. Instead, they pay 15 cents to print a page, which is similar in cost and function to a photocopier, the company said. People who want to use bibliography citations are charged 25 cents.