Bangalore-based Impelsys works with Britannica to find ways to market, monetise content

Earlier this month, when the 224-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica announced its exit from the print space, hurried obits were written. Some termed it “the end of an era”, while others interpreted it as a victory of the free, open and collaborative ‘wiki' model, extending it to the now near-rhetorical ‘print vs. digital', or ‘wisdom of the crowd vs. a rigorous editorial research process' debate.

The president of the Chicago-based publishing firm, started by “three visionary scotsmen”, himself described the decision to discontinue the 32-volume print edition as a “rite of passage in this new era”. The “demise”, widely attributed to the popularity of the 11-year-old Wikipedia, also triggered debate on whether or not encyclopaedias remain relevant in the post-Wikipedia world, with many arguing that well-researched and editorially-controlled content was still very much preferred over the ‘community edits' (though a study had pointed out a few years ago, that the number of errors in both were more or less the same). While the jury may never be out on this debate, Britannica carries on in its digital avatar, not only as a simple Web portal that allows easy reference, but also with applications and platform-specific features, and education services, that cater to a diverse device market.

Yes, it is too early to write-off the encyclopaedia. And helping it make this transition is a 10-year-old, Bangalore-based digital publishing firm, Impelsys, which has been helping manage its digital services for over two years now. At its medium-sized office, situated on Bannerghatta Road, Sameer Shariff, the founder of the firm, and his team, prepare the roadmap for the Chicago-based publisher. Impelsys has been working closely with the Britannica Inc. to find ways and markets to fully leverage their content assets and monetise them in the digital world, Mr. Shariff says.

The e-books site for Encyclopaedia Britannica is powered by iPublishCentral, the flagship product of Impelsys, and the site now contains hundreds of new non-fiction titles and Britannica's popular reference titles. ( Mr. Shariff told The Hindu that the announcement is a “historic milestone” for the encyclopaedia, as well as the publishing world.

The announcement on shedding its print avatar came as no surprise to Mr. Shariff. In recent reports, he pointed out, it was revealed that the print revenues were as low as 1 per cent. At the same time, the company had seen a tremendous growth in digital subscriptions too. So, instead of going through retail channels, it made sense for a company like EB to partner with digital publishers, because it enabled them to start building a direct relationship with their customers both in retail as well as institutions like libraries and corporate markets. “With a branded portal, they can reach customers directly. This connection with end users, allows publishers to build and better understand their end market.”

What are the technological challenges in running such a platform? Mr. Shariff concedes that this is a daunting task for publishers, because it is not their core strength. For companies such as his, of course, a major challenge is keeping pace with innovation. As platforms change and innovate at a “tremendous pace”, digital publishers are constantly on their toes. In the past two years, for instance, a major challenge has been mobile delivery on multiple platforms.

Nowadays, content must be agnostic to multiple platforms and, hence, publishers need a solution that can help them deliver their content on multiple platforms, explained Anil Gopinath, executive vice-president (global engineering). New devices introduce the challenge of supporting multiple screen sizes, book formats and operating systems. “In order to meet this challenge, we recently introduced support for multi-format e-books that allows publishers to deliver e-books in any format via iPublishCentral,” he said, adding that these can be read online via the browser and offline via customised apps on most devices.

iPublishCentral is Impelsys' Software as a Service (SaaS) platform that provides a comprehensive books on the cloud infrastructure solution to publishers, allowing them to warehouse, distribute, market and deliver their e-books across digital platforms and devices.

Another key challenge is that of scale and of providing instant access to the portal across hundreds of institutions (mainly libraries), and students, that form the encyclopaedia's customer base, across a range of devices.

While publishers in India have in recent years begun to embrace the digital platform, digital publishing is still in its infancy. The market in India is between three and five years behind the U.S. and Europe, said Mr. Shariff. However, he is hopeful that with the proliferation of mobile devices (tablets/big screen smartphones) things will soon change. “At the recent World Book Fair in New Delhi, we saw a lot of interest in our technologies by Indian publishers. Most publishers will have a comprehensive digital strategy in the next couple of years,” he said.