January 8, 2007

Back Issue Digitization Projects (BIDPs)

Untily recently, publishers who haven't digitized back issues of their publications, back issue digitization projects (BIDPs) have seemed more than little more than a royal headache with an uncertain return on the investment. More often than not, too many publishers operate in relative ignorance of their digital options and even their monetization opportunities. There are a number of options respecting BIDP standards, implementation platforms, and markets, so it hardly comes as a surprise that publishers, not knowing how to proceed, just pass on the opportunity altogether.

Presently, tens of thousands of periodicals are electronically available on websites either directly from their publishers or, more commonly, periodical aggregators. For the latter, who often take on the responsibility for digitization, most of these publications only go back in electronic form from five years to three decades, when such aggregators (e.g., LexisNexis or Dialog) first came came on the scene.

Since then several established publishers (Elsevier) and more recent aggregators (JSTOR) have aggressively engaged in BIDPs--defined here as projects that encompass runs of journals from their first issues to the most current--of either their own or others' content. Yet despite these more recent ventures, large swaths of copyrighted back issues go undigitized, breathing artificial life into back issue distributors (PastPaper.com or MillionMagazines.com) and giving succor to Google-like initiatives to digitize and freely distribute copyrighted but unlikely-to-be-defended serial publications (either because "orphaned" by defunct publishers or neglected by extant ones), unless actively stopped. The growing pressure to digitize and distribute everything, a trend that Google's library partnerships epitomizes, represents a very real threat to publishers who opt not to explore aggressively ways to monetize BIDPs of their own content. Consider the case of a project I worked on from Wolter Kluwer's Ovid, which rushed through this 4 million-page BIDP project in some 6 months (with content sourced from library partners), resulting in a $50K/sale product that saw a near immediate ROI.

The questions surrounding page imaging, text capture, display, hosting, platforms, maintenance, billing, and customer service are legion--and the answers are inevitably driven by cost, specifications, capacity and customer expectation. While infinite electronic ink can be spilled on all of these issues, none of these much matter without a business model and target market to support the BIDP business case. A number of publishers and distributors have since begun the process of creating these models (with more to come). These models include the sale of individual articles or articles at volume discount to individual consumers; entire individual issues in electronic form to consumers; annual subscriptions to complete backfiles of the journal(s) to consumers or libraries; entire archival backfiles (most often to institutional purchasers).

To get a better sense of how publishers have been selling by the pound or the entire animal, see my respective articles on article/issue-based and entire backfile business models.

Bennett Lovett-Graff
Publisher, Content Solutions
National Archive Publishing Company
Digitization, Microfilming, and Publisher Services