Analysis: When Everything Old Is

The Newest ‘electronica’ May Be The Classic Books Of Old.
If you think selling electronic copies of John Milton’s Areopagitica over the Internet doesn’t exactly sound like a money-making proposition, you haven’t talked to Patrick Ames of Octavo Editions.
Ames, 44, is CEO of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based publisher of great books, reproduced in facsimile on CD-ROM and sold online. In an online industry increasingly given to the mega-merger (witness USA Networks’ plan to buy Lycos), Octavo is evidence the Internet is still full of micro-niches–ones that may make money, in fact. Ames sounds decidedly upbeat about the fledgling e-commerce company’s prospects. “I see us as being profitable at the end of this year,” he predicts.
With the financial blessing of former boss John Warnock, founder of graphics software leader Adobe Systems, Ames founded Octavo in 1997. A staff of just six has since published a score of electronic titles that include facsimiles of some of the canonical works of science, art and literature; famous books by Galileo, Newton, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll top the list. Reasonably priced at $30 and up, Octavo editions are impressively faithful to the originals: Adobe’s Warnock, a devoted bibliophile, personally wrote the algorithms that allow Octavo’s technicians to capture and reproduce high-resolution images of these rare and valuable landmarks of print culture. To wit, monthly sales have doubled every month during the past year.
Octavo’s publishing program addresses one of the most vexing problems for scholars and educators concerned about the great books of civilization: most of the originals–so fragile that merely photographing them posed some daunting technical challenges–are too rare and too valuable to be put on view. Octavo had to devise special lighting systems to protect brittle paper and faded ink from overexposure, and the company’s programmer had to come up with proprietary software to render pages that could not be photographed flat, due to the precarious state of the books’ centuries-old bindings. Not surprisingly, the cost of duplicating the originals runs in the $30,000 to $40,000 range per volume.
The exquisitely detailed result–viewable in a variety of resolutions–are a pleasure to behold, but what’s really nifty about Octavo’s products are their “live text” function. Using Adobe’s Acrobat software readers can not only zoom in on minute details, they can read line-for-line using the Postscript language imbedded in every page, or look up references they might recall using the search function.
Beginning with vintage editions of great books from Warnock’s personal library, Octavo has expanded its publishing efforts to include licensing agreements with such major institutions as the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Libraries, it should come as no surprise, are one of five major market segments Ames identifies; the remaining four are bibliophiles, academics, ‘digerati’ and lastly, professionals.
Right now the company’s strongest sector, professionals such as doctors, lawyers, writers and designers, are ordering the CD-ROMs because they want to look at an old book that relates to their job. “Later in 1999 we’ll be entering the retail market,” promises Ames, who is currently testing message, brand and point-of-purchase displays with local booksellers. “Once we get that down we will move into working with a reseller, maybe even a chain store.” But for now Octavo is moving forward cautiously. As Ames points out, “We’re a small company, and establishing a retail presence can drain us very quickly.”
Kimball Brown, a marketing research analyst for San Jose, Calif.-based Dataquest, has been looking Octavo over and likes what he sees. “I’m fascinated that someone’s finally doing this for posterity, providing access to these incredible works of the past,” he says. He wonders, however, “But are they going to make money, and how do you measure that? As a way of paying back the world for how well Adobe’s done, Octavo is doing great. But you could make more money by putting it in a savings account.”
Octavo, in the meantime, continues to promote as well as market its unusual products exclusively online. A modest ad campaign has been largely devoted to banners on the Web literary destination Salon, although Ames has plans for other online placement soon. The publisher’s restrained but welcoming Web site, developed by San Francisco-based Factor Design, deftly introduces the company’s product line in an easy-to-use format. The site’s e-commerce function, too, is simple enough, and Ames believes that “as we grow larger we’ll build in more complexities, but right now simplicity is serving us very well.”
Ames, meanwhile, has his nose buried in Octavo’s next book. “Inventory is still a critical component of our profitability,” he explains. “Our first year was a good part research and development, getting used to being a hybrid-technology publisher. We’re still devoting huge amounts of our budget to creating a library, and that’s intentional. What’s left goes to perfect our process.” With limited resources at hand, “It’s very important for us to keep this period of infancy well-structured and keep the eye on the ball, and try to ride out the impatience for revenue and sales.”
The market, he believes should be as permanent as the quality of the works themselves.
“This is a 10- to 100-year publishing model. What we publish today is designed for the ‘tech-du-jour.’ But as the technology changes, we’ll have issue updates and new versions based on formats like DVD that we can offer to the same people who bought from us before.” Ames also expects renewed interest from younger customers as they graduate and enter the professions. “Taking the very long view, the investment we’re making will continue to pay off a generation from now.”
Credit Ames’ focus on the long-term to his no-less-than-ambitious historical perspective. The name “Octavo,” he explains, comes from the format introduced by Italian printers of the late 14th and early 15th centuries to make cheap, portable copies of literary works available to the masses. As Ames sees it, the same sort of thing is happening in publishing today–and it’s just as massive a change.
“It’s similar to the shift from command-line computing to the widespread popularity of graphical-user interfaces,” Ames explains. Publishers who now offer only dirt-world versions of printed texts, he believes, will soon have to contend with such present-day realities as searchable databases and, ultimately, futuristic formats that build from the technology Octavo’s publishing is based on. Some day, publishers may be able to create virtual recordings that could even duplicate the feel and smell of the original.
So does that mean that one day you’ll be using your software’s scratch-and-sniff function to savor the holographic leather binding of some fine old first edition? It probably will, if Patrick Ames has anything to say about it.