RUSA (Reference & User Services Division of ALA) sponsored a panel discussion of the product development of electronic reference products. It was organized by RUSA, with Joseph Yue of the University of California at the lead and moderated by Kay Cassell from Rutgers SLIS. The panel included Frank Menchaca from Gale/Cengage, Rolf Janke from SAGE Reference, Kevin Ohe from ABC-CLIO, and Mike Hermann from Greenwood.
Panelists discussed a variety of topics including: how product topics are selected and the role of librarians in that selection, technology expenses, time needed for product development, how items are priced, and the use of online products. The comments of all 4 panelists are summarized below, by topic.
Role of librarians: All publishers commented on the need for librarian input on the selection of topics. Librarians assist with needed topics and to suggest access points for the data for the end users, since they have so much experience with the end users. Publishers sometimes get caught by the cart before the horse problem, wanting to create great products from ideas. They fortunately have the ability to work with librarians to determine if they really NEED the product or if it’s just on their “wish I could have it” list. This keeps the horse before the cart.
Costs: New electronic products have considerable technology costs. Content costs add up when they are creating new content and have to license that, but when they have existing content, the expense is encountered in the technology. Cost savings come into play when they can leverage the same platform for various services, but this is sometimes difficult to do. Obviously staff and the effort to secure new subscribers are additional costs. Because the role of publishing is changing, new talent with significant technical/graphic skills are necessary, and this brings additional costs versus the publisher of old where everything was done in print.
Development time: The time to development depends on the project at hand, particularly the size of the project and what resources (content) are already on hand. Publishers said about 3 – 5 years are needed for the full process, it’s a time consuming process and one that obviously brings costs with it the longer the project takes. Some of these variables depend on the publisher and what is going on in their environment at the time.
Pricing: How is pricing of products determined? Publishers agreed that there are many formulas for determining pricing and also many variables, all things that need to be taken into account. They use all means necessary to determine the right price. Return on Investment is key, but pricing according to competition is also very important, factors in the environment are also taken into consideration (like similar free products and economic downturns). They would like more dialogue with librarians on pricing, agreeing that sometimes they’ve selected the wrong price. In the print world, it’s much easier. You know what a 3 volume encyclopedia is going to cost, once things go electronic and additional features are added, these are more difficult to price. Sustainability was also mentioned, pricing to sustain your business. Additional challenges appear with consortia pricing and their discount structures and ebook aggregators with a variety of pricing models. Some are now investigating use based pricing.
Use of products: Publishers are now needing to hire usability teams to test products with end users and come back and refine the product before going to market. This is one of the more important things they have done recently. People with backgrounds in human computer interaction, behavioral psychology and the like could become the new editorial assistants, providing insight on the behavior of end users (this was tongue in cheek I believe). User experience is one of the more challenging parts of the process because of the “to each their own” motto. Users may like the interface because it’s blue, and dislike the interface because it’s blue. The best part is that the end users provide feedback and you can continuously adapt your product to make it better serve the users.