All manner of books

Sharon Cooper, head of e-business development at Oxford University Press (OUP), will shortly go on maternity leave from a job she...

Sharon Cooper, head of e-business development at Oxford University Press (OUP), will shortly go on maternity leave from a job she loves. And for the next six months or so, the University Press will have to make do until Cooper returns.

It is not that Cooper is irreplaceable - just nearly so - but that her temporary leave of absence comes as OUP struggles to compete with larger and more cash-rich publishing rivals.

There is no contradiction between OUP's heritage and its current technological competence - it has been on the leading edge of technology since being founded in 1586 by Royal Charter from Charles I.

It now boasts a tiny business systems development (BSD) group in comparison with its rivals, is already developing Web-based systems that will give customers global ordering access to its book portfolio, as well as developing a sophisticated search tool, Ask Oxford, based on its world-famous expertise in the English language.

Its most famous publication, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) - the new edition of which is due out in 2015 and which has 80 lexicographers working on it - is already online. OUP remains a part of the university and returns 30% of its annual pre-tax surplus to it. The surplus in 2000-01 was £46.6m from a turnover of £366m.

OUP also has to wrestle with a series of problems created by an uncomfortable interface between what could be the traditional pace and rhythms of book publishing and the world of the Web.

For example, although OUP might want to take one of its existing book titles online, actually doing it is no straightforward task. "We have had an ongoing debate about putting multivolume, medical textbooks online," says Cooper.

"But they have 500 contributors per book and 5,000 chapters, and you have to update the material in order to put it online. When we went to our contributors and asked if they would update their chapters, they refused to do it, nor would they let anyone else update them. We get stuck in the same circular debate."

Cooper admits that her biggest headache in implementing e-business strategies across OUP's activities around the world is hampered by her lack of staff able to compete with everyone's demands. In the whole systems group, there are only 38, all in a development role, with no IT support in that number.

"Everyone's so excited - they all want it today. It has literally stirred up huge amounts of interest and excitement, and people can see the potential of it actually getting something better than they can create themselves. That's one issue," she says.

"The other issue is trying to work with 11 different warehousing systems - 11 different ways of holding data. Everything in the back-office is different in every office: even our SAP implementations, although we're bringing everybody up to the same level."

Cooper admits that her team is taking on a big task - perhaps too big a task. "It's a big risk, because everyone wants it now. It comes down to who needs it most, and not who shouts loudest. And that's hard to judge. In some territories, South Africa for example, the biggest part of their market is the educational market. Schools there still don't have electricity, but their academics are shouting like crazy.

" Most bigger companies with larger market shares would not be trying to squeeze an educational publishing business through one pipe because their independent businesses are big enough on their own. But we don't have that luxury. We probably do far more work, and a lot more customisation, to meet all those demands," she explains.

Making life easier
Fortunately for Cooper, OUP has benefited from using a content-management system, which, it admits, has made its life easier. "The one place that hasn't been a problem is in Mediasurface. Compared with a lot of other systems, it really hasn't been a problem because it doesn't care what the content is, whether it's text or audio, video or image files. At the end of the day, Mediasurface was the most cost-effective solution for us at the time, and still is," she explains.

"The thing we liked most about it is letting non-technical people do what seems to be an awful lot of content creation without needing technical know-how. A lot of the other bigger content-management systems appear to need consultants and third-party companies to work with you to create your site.

"Even our Web developers are not highly technical. They're not engineers, they are content and design and usability specialists."

As well as Mediasurface, OUP has also worked closely with SAP, with regular dialogue between the two on the development of SAP's e-business offerings. At the heart of OUP's set-up for managing its content around the world is establishing three data centres, in the US, the UK and the Far East.

To create local sites, OUP puts a frame around the UK site and replaces the pricing field with different local country price information, so as soon as a change is made on the UK site, it is reflected on every site.

As far as a customer in India is concerned, an Oxford World Classics site is branded OUP India, and is priced in rupees.

Hassle-free operations
The thing that has surprised Cooper is that there has been no resistance to work being done centrally in the UK. "What we're saying to them is we're not interfering with your content, and we're not telling you what sort of site you should have, we're just saying we will build it for you and take all of the headache and worry over technology and hosting and running it 24-hours a day.

"You should see the look of relief on their faces that all they have to do is what they do best, which is know their markets and how to talk to them," says Cooper. Ironically for OUP, despite putting the OED online, it has not seen massive decreases in sales of its print books. "When we put the OED online, we had to reprint the print version of it because we had so many people who wanted to buy the book," says Cooper.

"If you look at any academic publisher, or any book publisher, we're not geared up to sell direct to consumers. Our website has turned us - and turned other publishers too - into a retailer without us actually being one.

"Our catalogue is updated every day. You can buy anything that is in stock in our warehouse on a number of company websites. In the UK, we have 27,000 titles on our catalogue, with pricing, availability information and content.

"If you go to Amazon, you will get title, ISBN and a book jacket for one of our products. If you go to our site, you will get blurb, readership, list of contents and sample material. For every new book we publish, we create a pdf of the first chapter as a standard part of the production process. If you're paying, say, £100 for a book, you probably want to have a bit of an idea what it's like," she says.

"We feel very strongly that our website's job is to make information available. We are not expecting to sell direct to customers. It's an added bonus if we make a sale online because we make it at full price. But quite honestly, if customers come to our site, look at a book and decide they want to buy it, and then get it at Amazon for 20% off, then good for them."

Competitive climate
The advent of the Internet has also led to the creation of competitors to publishers such as OUP. "There are start-up companies doing things in the educational market, such as Research Machines, which was originally a hardware supplier, but is now getting more and more into the provision of content.

"And, you can see it starting to think that eventually, why would it need to licence this or that content from a publisher? Why not just get the teacher to write it for them?" Microsoft's Encarta is another example; it has become a competitor to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Cooper admits that the availability of material on the Internet has created a different mindset towards information. Previously, a book would simply have been out of date, and accepted as such. In professional areas such as medicine, rarely would the information contained in one book have been seen as sufficient.

"Take the area of medical malpractice suits. If an author says, 'Cut here' or 'Take this drug dosage', how liable are we as a publisher if that drug dosage is, say, 10 times too great because of a typo?

If it's the publisher that has made the mistake about what the author had originally put, then it's our fault. But if the author wrote it, then it still has to be proved that one book has been responsible for the death or maiming of a person, because its always professional knowledge."

Whatever OUP publishes has to be sanctioned by a group known as the Delegates, which is a peer review group dating back to the mid 1600s. Currently, there are 21 senior academics in the group, each serving a five-year term.

As well as approving books, they also approve online products. Bearing in mind OUP's heritage, and limited resources of competing in the Internet-driven world, they would undoubtedly approve of Cooper and her team's efforts.

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