Don Linn's post on the business of book publishing "Risk and Return in the Time of Cholera", did a good job of explaining the John Sargent "disastrous but stable" comment that I reported last week. The observation that I found most interesting in Linn's article was that technological change surrounding the transition to ebooks will necessitate significant expenditures of capital. "Given weak balance sheets and low ROI's, where will the capital come from to finance the rapid innovation and change required?"
OCLC sold most of its NetLibrary Division to EBSCO Publishing. The transaction is surely a manifestation of the need for innovation capital identified by Don Linn.
First, I need to make disclaimers. For the most part, I've avoided writing here about OCLC, the world's largest library cooperative. I worked there for three years, and I have continuing obligations regarding proprietary information, so writing about OCLC means I have to do extra work to make sure that things I know and write are public information. Although I didn't work with the NetLibrary division at all, you can't work somewhere for three years without developing bias, so consider yourself disclaimered.
NetLibrary was a bubble-era dot-com that was the first company to try to make a business of creating, aggregating and selling ebooks. eBook adoption was too slow for NetLibrary to generate the returns that investors had hoped for, and it burned through over $100 million of venture capital and crashed. OCLC was the white knight that rode in to rescue the company, picking it out of the bankruptcy dumpster for only $10 million. OCLC said that it did so to protect the investments its members had made in NetLibrary ebooks, but another way to understand its motivation is to note that libraries and the institutions that serve them have much longer horizons than venture capitalists, and OCLC could afford to wait for for the day that ebooks would transition from curiosity to widely used medium.
iPad came along. While you can listen to a NetLibrary audiobook on your iPod, you can't read a NetLibrary ebook on your iPhone. NetLibrary now uses the Adobe Content Server to allow its PDFs to be read on the nook from Barnes & Noble and on Sony Digital Readers. Clearly NetLibrary will need some significant investment to keep up with the rapidly changing ebook environment.
The sale of NetLibrary should be viewed primarily as a capital allocation decision by OCLC. eBooks and eReaders are not the only change happening in the library world, and NetLibrary is not the only major product at OCLC that would suck up significant capital. OCLC is making significant investments in cloud-based library management service based on WorldCat and WorldCat Local, and sensibly managed businesses, even non-profit ones, allocate capital according to the potential value created.
With capable ebook competitors such as Overdrive, ebrary, Myilibrary (part of Ingram Digital Group) and others, it's difficult to make the case that NetLibrary was providing unique value or substantial cost savings for OCLC member libraries. In contrast, WorldCat is a unique resource and the library management services being built on it promise a revolution in the way libraries work. According to OCLC VP Chip Nilges, quoted in an article worth reading in Library Journal, selling NetLibrary is "a strategic repositioning from hosting and reselling content to building WorldCat out as a platform that libraries can use to manage and provide access to their entire collection."
Netlibrary's presence in the ebook market may also have conflicted with OCLC's desire to catalogue, expose and link to every ebook held by libraries. To best do this, OCLC needs cooperation from ebook vendors other than NetLibrary. These competitors probably weren't happy that OCLC's library holdings database constituted valuable market intelligence- what they were selling and who they was selling it to.
If OCLC wasn't willing to finance rapid ebook innovation, why does EBSCO Publishing appear to be willing to do so?
started out selling magazine subscriptions. Elton B. Stephens, the company's founder and the EBS of EBSCO, noticed that his customers, which included the military, needed binders to put the magazines in and shelves to put them on, so he started selling binders and shelving. EBSCO grew into the largest subscription agency in the world, and provides libraries and corporations tools to create and manage their virtual magazine shelves. Somewhere along the way it also became the largest fishing lure manufacturer in the world.
I think the answer to Don Linn's question is that the capital to support rapid innovation in ebooks will come (and has come from) from incumbents in adjacent industries with expertise in products that are not print books. Amazon first developed eCommerce capability; Apple developed consumer devices and a content marketplace; Google sells ads and delivers search. Starbucks does storefronts.
I wouldn't be surprised if one or more of the NetLibrary competitors I named above are soon acquired by "adjacent industry incumbents". The comment thread is open for your speculatory pleasure.