Online research start-up Ebrary and the Learning Network, an e-learning company owned by Pearson, on Wednesday are launching a beta version of a virtual library.
Sunnyvale, California-based Ebrary said the service, dubbed Ebrarian 1.0, will be available on a co-branded Web site, enabling people to scour business and economic titles for free. People will also have the option to buy materials in print form or photocopy the information for a fee.
While the online research publishing market has yet to reach critical mass and faces copyright issues, analysts said the agreement between Ebrary and the Learning Network is a good move.
Susan Kevorkian, analyst at IDC, said the online publishing market is "growing, but slowly". In the next six months to a year, more titles specifically geared toward students and professionals will become available, she said.
"That's going to be a critical step in ultimately driving wider adoption of the technology because the fact is traditional books have persisted in our culture for a reason," Kevorkian said. "They're familiar, easy to use, and for that reason any digital substitution is going to have to not only achieve, but surpass, the benefits that traditional books have."
Ebrary has a "smart model" in terms of making text easily accessible to consumers, Kevorkian said, which is a key component in driving all forms of digital technology that have offline counterparts. Because Ebrary offers content for free until it has been downloaded or printed, it provides a "degree of flexibility that many of the other digital book providers don't make available," she added.
Ebrary said its service enables people to search content without subscription and membership fees. Consumers pay only for the printing or copying of the information. While the cost to print material is determined on a per-page basis by a price set by the publisher, it typically runs around 25 cents per page. The photocopying cost is 50 cents per page.
"The user benefits because literally for the first time on the Internet, they get access to the very valuable information that's contained within books, magazines, journals and reports that previously have never been on the Internet before," said Christopher Warnock, chief executive of Ebrary and son of Adobe Systems chairman John Warnock, who sits on Ebrary's board of directors. "What Ebrarian does is it especially helps bring customers to content and content to customers."
The service eliminates the hassle of going to the library or bookstore and finding that the book is not available, Warnock said. Ebrarian enables people to search for the information as well as browse through the book online. And the company's publishing partners benefit with Ebrarian because they're supplying their patrons with access to books in a manner that promotes the sale of a book and enables people to compensate the author and publisher for the copy and printing of text, Warnock said.
Dan O'Brien, analyst at Forrester Research, said that while the agreement between Ebrary and the Learning Network "makes a lot of sense," the biggest issue that Ebrary has to overcome is distribution.
"Partnering up with a large international company with a broad educational presence makes a lot of sense," O'Brien said. But "Pearson is not a huge presence in the marketplace yet. They're still building that, so I think Ebrary needs to partner broadly."
Privately held Ebrary, which is backed by Random House Ventures, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, takes digital publications in PDF format and displays them freely on the Web, through either the Ebrary site or a partner site run by a publisher, library or research group.
The Learning Network is part of Pearson, a London-based international media company that also owns educational and media companies including Pearson Education, Penguin Books and the Financial Times.