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Chasing the long tail

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Arie Jongejan, chief executive officer, and Thomas Snyder, chief commercial officer, of Swets talk about how scholarly information needs are changing

What trends have you observed?

AJ: Three years ago what we sold was about a third print only, a third electronic only and a third both. Now it is probably half electronic only and print only is probably down to about 20 per cent of sales.

The publisher relationship has changed. Three years ago it was very much a case of ‘us and them’ but now people have started to realise their respective roles in the value chain. Once electronic journals came along, some major publishers said that they could do the subscriptions themselves but many of them are now coming back to us. There is lots of fi nancial and administrative work involved in this. For example, in selling to consortia different members want different things and have access to different amounts of money.

If one university has 1,000 researchers and another has 100 researchers they won’t want to pay the same.

Another aspect that has changed with electronic access is getting the payment in. With print subscriptions, payments were received before the journals were sent out. With electronic access there is more of a delay. Once customers begin to have access they don’t necessarily pay straight away.

It is much easier to communicate with customers than it used to be. They find it easier to articulate what they want. We would like to promote a sort of self-service approach. This may not be right for the big customers but may suit smaller customers. They can look at the platform, see what is available, what the prices are and how they compare. This is for existing customers but we would like to do this sort of tool for walk-in customers too.

Another trend is the amount of tendering. Customers do not stay so long with the same agent now, although they ignore the enormous costs of switching. We can win or lose with this. The competitive positioning between agents has increased and there has been more consolidation in agents.

How has the information subscribed to changed?

AJ: The boundaries between books and journals are fading. In the past, journal subscriptions followed a renewal cycle, while books were one-off purchases. With electronic products both books and journals can be subscription products and customers no longer make a hard distinction between them.

Several years ago we decided not to be a book agent because they traditionally sell from a supply so have to have a large warehouse of stock. Now, customers want us to supply e-books, but they might also want a few print books so we fi nd that we are moving back into books.

The same applies with newspapers. We have made a recent deal to become a reseller for an electronic newspaper platform. The more we open ourselves up and become a one-stop-shop, the more customers ask for.

With any request for us to supply something new we have to ask ourselves whether it plays to our strengths. We are good where there are big numbers and complicated finances. We could conceptually handle an institution’s membership subscriptions, but will not be selling library shelving.

How has your strategy changed?

AJ: Our new SwetsWise eSource Manager is an electronic management system. We believe that there is a niche in the market that we can address with this. Traditional library management systems are big ticket items. This means that they are only really bought by the bigger libraries and then the libraries still have to enter their own data.

With SwetsWise we already have 90 per cent of what they have in these systems but we also have the customer’s own data, including licence data and changes in holdings. We also have information about changes in titles and publishers. We positioned SwetsWise as a transaction system but it can also be a management system. There is definitely convergence.

TS: In other industries many catalogue companies have become the long-tail sellers of today. People always go to the overview sites such as Amazon and iTunes. If we play our cards rights we could be really well-placed in our industry.

What do you predict for the future of this industry?

TS: I question whether end users or consumers will continue to take a white paper or journal article and read it from start to fi nish. There is a Wikipedia-isation of information. Information will be consumed very differently, with snippets from a range of sources.

I don’t believe that this monopoly that publishers have of getting information from authors to readers is sustainable either. Peer review is important, but the majority of authors just need to get their information out there.

Other channels will be made available such as self-publishing. The internet lends itself to peer review. We are completely agnostic to the source of information. If there was some kind of site that facilitated self-publishing, e-access would be the same as for a leading publisher.

Interview by Siân Harris