Elsevier Moves More Quickly than Its Competitors

January 24, 2013

Well, quite a surprise for a giant, traditional, print-centric outfit. Elsevier may be gearing up to put a head lock on ProQuest (high dollar databases) and Ebsco (databases with stunning names). Both of these competitors, along with outfits like Ovid are trying to adapt to a world in which libraries have to decide between paying the electric bills and licensing six and seven figure online databases. Can these companies continue to grow and generate profits.

Some say, “Yes.” Others say, “Not a chance.”

I am indifferent to the plight of this market sector. Isn’t everything a modern person requires available on a free Web system? If not, do today’s researchers care? With made up results and marketing taking the place of thinking, I am okay with the Google type system. The students whom I know are even more fond of Google than I am.

However, Elsevier may be hip to the new direction in revenue direction. I read “Elsevier Acquires Knovel, Provider of Web-based Productivity Application for the Engineering Community.” Knovel had funding from what I think of as venture sherpas. The K2 task was to develop a different type of electronic information which served specific market needs and warranted real dough. Think thousands for a “content object,” not $0.50 an abstract.

Elsevier, modestly described as “a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services,” acquired Knovel. No misspelling. Just some cute word play which may be lost on some recent college graduates.

Knovel is an electronic publisher which recycles high value content and adds value. Here’s how Knovel describes its “live PDF” innovation:

Knovel is the leading online technical reference resource for 3 reasons. First, Knovel locates more potentially relevant answers in a collection. Second, Knovel is better at quickly narrowing the potential answers to those most relevant to your search. Third, Knovel has interactive tables and graphs to help engineers use and export relevant data, making Knovel so much more than just e-books. (See http://why.knovel.com/company/about-knovel.html)

The key point is number three. The PDF instance allows the reader to plug in data and get an output. Think a baby version of Mathematica for civil engineers and others of their ilk. The idea is that an engineering text can be interacted with.

Elsevier has fired blanks in the electronic publishing sector for years. I won’t wander through the history of Elsevier, but I would like to give the company a happy quack for what looks like a reasonably good move.

How will Elsevier’s competitors respond? Raising prices is one option. Talking about doing bold actions may be another. At some point, fresh thinking and reaching for new opportunities will be necessary. Otherwise, there will be one or two commercial database outfits, one or two database aggregators, and one or two sources of professional content. Once that consolidation takes place, the revenues will be under severe pressure from folks who get advertisers to foot the bill for online information.

In short, nice move Elsevier. Time for the ProQuests and the Ebsco to do something which pumps up the top line in a meaningful and returns a healthy profit to the companies’ stakeholders. Even rich people want a return.

Stephen E Arnold, January 24, 2013


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