Monday, March 31, 2008

Five Questions with Exact Editions

Exact Editions has developed a seemingly simple aggregation service for magazine publishers so that exact replicas (editions) of their print magazines can be viewed online. No doubt there is a lot more behind the scenes which is why I asked Adam Hodgkin my Five Questions.

1. Tell us about how Exact Editions started and what you set out to do?

Exact Editions was founded by Daryl Rayner, Tim Bruce and me three years ago. We incorporated the business at the end of May 2005. But we didn't have anything to show or sell until March 2006, which is when our service went live with just four magazines. The idea was to provide an aggregation service for magazine publishers and a way for consumers to buy individual subscriptions to consumer magazines. Magazines exactly as they are. As glossy as possible, with the ads in place, and with no 'messing about' or 'repurposing' of the material. We realised that there was an opportunity to add value to the publishers' existing content by working with archives, rather than single issues. When new subscribers sign up they get immediate access to at least a year's worth of back issues - in some cases three years, depending on the title. Our search tool works across all issues and all titles by default, so the archives are a really useful resource.

Daryl, Tim and I had previously worked together for five years at xrefer a business which provided aggregation services for reference book publishers. We knew each other well and that is important in a startup, but we all saw the new business as a completely fresh venture. From the outset we had a very different concept for the kind of service that Exact Editions would provide -- that it would be much more consumer oriented, that it would be providing a service for publishers and that it would be a pure web operation. If possible everything would be automated and would work through the web. xrefer made its sales through subscriptions to libraries, we felt that this would be very much a secondary market with consumer magazines. However it is now looking more important and we are selling subscriptions to libraries -- this is working rather well.

2. Describe the process of loading the content: Can any publisher participate and are there any special considerations that publishers must take into account?

It was important to us to make the import process as straightforward for the publishers as possible. In most cases, we work directly from the same PDFs they send to their printer.

The publisher just has to send a copy to our upload service and tell us the publication date. All the enhancements (phone links, contents page links, ISBN resolution) are added in our import process, and we ensure subscribers receive a notification when the issue goes live. We don't generally charge the publishers up front fees (we may need to if the circulation is very small or we are providing additional promotional services to the publisher) and this makes it easy for publishers to try our service. They can only gain from the digital edition and the new subscriptions that will come in. We take a small commission from the digital subscriptions that we sell. So our rewards are 'success-based'. The publishers get the bulk of the subscription revenues and they set the prices, we will probably only make a decent return once a magazine title is selling 50 or 100 subscriptions a month. But we are now hitting these levels and the growth rates are encouraging, especially since December last year.

We probably would not take on a magazine which we thought could only have 1000 digital subscriptions, but most consumer magazines can work well as digital offerings. We started with magazine publishers based in the UK but we are now looking to add magazines from the consumer sectors in the USA, France, and Australia. We would like to offer and work with Canadian magazines (French and English). We get a lot of Canadian subscribers. In principle, we could now add consumer magazines form other language markets, German, Spanish, Arabic etc, but I suspect that this will wait until we have scaled up our coverage in France, USA and Australia. As it happens I live mostly in Italy, which has a healthy consumer magazine market, but I don't fancy doing the Italian language customer support at this stage of my Italian.

3. You have experimented with some interesting applications such as executable phone numbers and ISBN’s. How are these being used by subscribers? Are you seeking to leverage these applications in additional ways? Are there any results that The Bookseller has seen that you can discuss?

We certainly see the addition of this type of interactivity as very important. We think the iPhone is hugely important. Important in its own right and important because other phones will be like it; and being able to click on emails, urls, ISBNs and phone numbers from your web page is a crucial asset. Especially when your web page is in the palm of your hand. I am amazed that more websites and web resources do not make phone numbers clickable as a matter of course. As an inveterate Skype user I find this slowness even on good web sites quite incomprehensible. Yes the ISBNs are definitely being used.

We only have a couple of months of usage to consider, but I am surprised how much they have been clicked. This page had more ISBN clicks than any other last month. And a lot more for Catherine Alliott and Elizabeth George than for Jeffrey Archer or John Grisham. I don't know why! And yes we will be leveraging this function. Book publishers catalogues -- exactly as in print -- should be on the web as navigable and searchable resources. We will encourage that and facilitate it. PDFs are a very poor way of putting them up.

4. You have experimented with Books. Your approach offers a strong alternative to wholesale programs like Google Book. Do your publisher clients see it this way? How do you pitch the product?

We are working with book publishers and expect this business to grow strongly, because our platform works well for three key functions which book publishers increasingly need to address (1) sampling through the web (2) licensing digital editions to individuals (3) licensing to institutions. We pitch the service as being technologically similar to Google Book Search but as being at the disposal, if you like at the beck and call of, the publisher. Google has positioned its Book Search service as an alternative and a potential competitor to the role of the publisher. That may well have been a mistake. We think book publishers can use our platform to provide their own aggregation service and we are enabling that to happen. Google Book Search also has a great role to play and we think it will be very successful, but in many cases the publishers need to run their own show.

5. What is next for Exact Editions?

Our biggest challenge is to automate more of the key processes involved in 'signing up' to the business proposition. The one bit of our process which is still rooted in paper is the simple contract. We need to have that process completely web-based. And I don't just mean a click-through contract, I mean a click-through process for testing, for uploading content, for defining samples and customisation. Daryl and I still spend a lot of time talking to publishers and even visiting them. We like doing this, but its not strictly necessary. We are on the road to automating all these steps, but there is still a way to go.

Adam is available here:

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