March 20, 2007

Microfilm Publishing Primer: Rumors of Its Death

I’ve worked in commercial microfilm publishing for nearly a decade, developing products in that medium for consumption by researchers. In 1998, I joined Primary Source Media, which had been founded in th 1960s as Research Publications. The change from Research Publications to Primary Source Media presumably foretold the rapid decline in commercial micropublishing among libraries as they switched over to electronic products. Eight years later, just before my depature in early 2006, only part of the prophecy had come to pass.

Electronic products had, indeed, taken off, but not necessarily at the expense of microfilm products. (This no doubt explained the change in name from Primary Source Media to Primary Source Microfilm five years later). Lesson to be learned? Generally speaking, while commercial micropublishers have seen attrition in the sale of microfilm, the rate of attrition has been far less than anticipated. So how has this shaken out in the market over the last decade?

Although grateful for the slowness of the attrition, micropublishers continue to bemoan the lack of growth in their ("top-line") total revenues. One result in the last ten years is the gobbling up of smaller firms. In late 1999, ProQuest acquired Chadwyck-Healey. In early 2003, it followed up by purchasing Norman Ross Publishing. In May 2004, Gale Cengage (formerly Thomson Gale) acquired Scholarly Resources. And the rationale for acquiring these properties is not hard to see. First, microfilm publishing is very profitable, making microfilm divisions classic "cash cows." Second, microfilm imprints carry large swaths of repurposable content easily "repurposed"--that is, converted--into potentially lucrative digital products. (The cost of converting certain types of microfilmed content to digital form is far less than that of working from originals, but that is another subject.) Net result is that rumors of micropublishing’s imminent death remain...well...just that: rumors. Explaining why requires a little more investigation.