January 30, 2001

This entry is a long one. It is part rant and part conjecture on the topic of Questia, my new mortal enemy.

Unless you are a librarian in the know, it is unlikely that you have heard of Questia. While the company launched sometime this month, I don't believe they have started an advertising campaign. 

(I've since learned that they have launched at TV ad campaign during the "March Madness" college basketball tourney)

So by way of introduction, from the Questia website, founder Troy Williams gives us ...

A Short History of Questia.
(with my snarky translations and annotations) 

While working as an editor on the Harvard Law Review in the fall of 1997, I was stunned to realize that although I could search the full text of any law case online. I could not search the full text of books. If I needed to find a quote in a book, I needed the book itself and a lot of extra hours to spend browsing it in the same manner one would have 50 years ago.

Troy is devastated that if you "need a quote" (note that he is looking for a quote, not an idea) you actually have to *read* a book. How 50 years ago!

That's when the idea of a massive online library of books came to me. It would have 250,000 books, classics as well as books published throughout the 20th century. The books would be interlinked through their footnotes and bibliographies, allowing users to seamlessly jump from a page in one book to the page of another.

The hyperlinking of research in research journals is already available through products such as Web of Science (which also includes Humanities and Social Science material) and efforts such as CrossRef.

It would enable users to create personal workspace; to highlight and annotate books; to create links between pages of different books as well as access reference works with a single click.


However, I still had the small task of finishing Harvard Law School. In my spare time, I began to research whether anyone was undertaking such a project and found no one was. So, in late February 1998, I flew to Houston and met with the president, provost and several senior administrators from Rice University (my alma mater) to gauge the feasibility of such a project and received encouragement.

When I first read this, I thought it was bunk, but I've since figured that it could be true. NetLibrary founded in August of 1998 and Ebrary was founded in February 1999.

On June 4, 1998, I graduated from Harvard Law School. Four days later I was in Houston living out of my car, for a short period of time. I began shopping a short business plan to groups of angel investors while in my spare time I tried to find a place to live and convince some others to join the fledgling company.

Within weeks, Justus Baird had joined the company and the two of us worked night and day on a constant diet of noodles and butter in my cramped studio apartment with no furniture other than some $4.99 plastic chairs.

The business press just loves a "rags to riches" story. But you hardly come from 'rags' if you have just graduated from the Harvard Law School and you are turning down jobs at established firms so you can start your own business. This passage has been reprinted in most of the articles I have read about Questia and I fume every time I see it. It's a glamorization of poverty and it's even more offensive when you remember that their many of Questia's target market are students who live in genuine poverty and are taking on considerable debt for a university degree.

By late fall, it was apparent that the apartment was far too cramped for us. Although we still were in search of financing, we located a large house and took the risk of renting. It would suffice for our entire "garage stage." We dubbed it "Dryden House."

I don't have a liberal arts degree and perhaps this is why I don't  understand the significance of "Dryden House". I tried searching Questia for insight, and came up with three book titles in three different subjects.

(I've since learned from a former employee of Questia that "Dryden House" was simply named after the street the house was on. I find it facinating that companies now find it necessary to create a homey narrative for their company in order to create some sort of mythology: Apple had their garage; HP had their shack.)

In late March 1999, we made a presentation to a group of potential investors that included Rod Canion, founder of Compaq Computer Corporation. Within hours after the meeting, Rod indicated his interest in financing us with seed capital. On April 8, 1999, 10 months to the day after I had arrived in Houston, Rod joined the team and became our chairman of the board. That was when we flipped the ignition switch.

Evidently all you need to start your own business after graduation is the blessing of a Captain of the New Economy. With another Bush in the While House, do we need any more proof that the United States is an oligarchy?

Today, we have 250 people. We have offices in Houston, New York, and Los Angeles. We have an experienced, proven management team of individuals who have come from such places as Compaq, Disney and HarperCollins. Our company's official name is Questia Media, Inc., and come early 2001, we'll launch the Questia service to the world.

I hope you agree with me when you read more about the service, that Questia is poised to transform the nature of academic research and democratize access to knowledge.

(This is where I blow up)
Your chief competition are not-for-proft libraries !!!

I look forward to partnering with you on this valuable mission to further education.

Piss off.

Troy Williams
Founder, President & CEO, Director
Questia Media, Inc.

Ok, you may be thinking, what's the big deal? Why get so hot under the collar?

I'll tell you what the big deal is: 

Questia has raised over $135 million in venture capital to date.

And look at their Board of Directors:

Rod Canion - Chairman of the Board, Founder of Compaq Computer Corporation
Ken Lay - Director, Chairman and CEO of Enron Corporation
P. Andrews McLane - Director, Senior Managing Director at TA Associates
Troy Williams - Founder, Director, President & CEO

Now do you understand why I am so disturbed by Questia?

I'm an academic librarian and I bust my butt to stretch every dollar that we get from an underfunded university. 

And now I learn that the leaders of some of the most powerful companies in the world have decided that the non-profit sector of librarianship is ripe for personal profit. 

I'm a little freaked.



I'm also a little perplexed.

In spite of all the money and clout they have, I can't see how Questia can possibly succeed. Their largest competition - libraries - already gives similar access to the same "product" - electronic books and journal articles -

for free.


From the Questia FAQ:

There aren't that many successful subscription models on the Internet today. Why does Questia believe it will be able to succeed with this type of business model?

Market research conducted to date has shown a strong desire for our service among the target market. In addition, the subscription models on the Internet that have been successful are those that offer rich content in high demand. Questia is offering the highest quality research content available online for this target market.

Questia wants to charge $19.95 a month for their service. That doesn't sound too imposing but $360 a year sure does. Especially when you learn that Questia excludes textbooks from their collection, so that the $360 will have to be in addition to what students must already pay for books. 

Now, in order to make $135 million, Questia needs 375,000 annual subscriptions. In its FAQ, Questia says there are 12 million undergraduates in the United States. That sounds like an impressive pool to draw from but Questia's services are geared towards only liberal arts students: there is no business, science, engineering or professional material in Questia. So, their target market is probably considerably less than 12 million which means that their market share will have to be considerably higher.

Can I mention again that many libraries perform the same ebook service as Questia does (albeit at a smaller scale) for free? 

And what about those libraries that do not offer ebook services yet? Are their students ripe for Questia's picking?

Hardly. Thanks to the volunteer work by such folks as Project Guttenburg, hundreds of publications in the public domain -  like the works of Shakespeare - are available for free on the web.

And for those modern critical works that are only available at the library in book form - well, students can check the online catalogue from home to see if they are available and then when they are on campus, drop by the library and pick them up to read later at home. 

I know, how awful! 
How old economy!
How 50 years ago! 

But tell me then:

Would you rather read an entire book from a screen?

Questia has assured publishers that the books in their system will not be printed out or copied in entirety. Questia prevents this by showing one page of a document at a time. This means you have be online when you read or print the material, page by page. 

So is Questia so forward thinking that they are betting the farm that a portable electronic reading device will become commonplace? And if so, which one? Are they positioning themselves for the time when electronic paper becomes available? 

Or does Questia think so little of liberal arts students that they assume that no one is actually going to want to read an entire book with their service.  Do they think so little of research that they think it is primarily gleaning quotes  for papers? 

With all that Questia is going to be up against, it makes you think that they must have a kick ass marketing scheme up their sleeve that will be guaranteed to bring in the students and thus, the dollars. But then you read...

Who is the Question Marquis and why did you pick him as a spokesperson?

The Question Marquis is an anachronism, an 18th century French Enlightenment figure ripped out of context and placed onto 21st century college campuses. He is the spokesperson for our advertising campaign because he is an intellectual and a philosopher (characteristic of the French Enlightenment salon circuit) and is an interesting looking and acting character who, we believe, most students will find intriguing.

What's intriguing is that a ridiculous short-tempered character who speaks English with a bad French accent is the best that Questia's millions could come up with to promote their product. (If this is the case, I don't feel so bad about how libraries market themselves).

Fine. So be it. 

Question Marquis, I've accepted the challenge of  your $135 million dollar gauntlet. 

May the best library win.