Imagine that a baby-faced 26-year-old comes knocking at your door, looking for money. He's living out of his car in Houston, and he wants $100 million for a dotcom to do something not even the Library of Congress has done--put 50,000 scholarly books online. "The venture capitalists just looked at me and laughed," says Troy Williams.
Williams got revenge with the January launch of Questia.com a 24-hour academic library offering everything from Death of a Salesman to St. Augustine's The City of God, for a $19.95 monthly subscription. Questia is one of several e-libraries that will offer college students a more streamlined way of writing papers. He immodestly predicts that the e-library will be an "advance for civilization" as momentous as Gutenberg's press, making knowledge available to anyone, anywhere, anytime. For a price.
There are 10.6 million college students in the paper chase. "It will be the biggest thing to hit college campuses since the computer," declares Williams, who clearly is on a first-name basis with hyperbole. Questia not only searches entire texts of books, skipping to pertinent paragraphs and offering hyperlinks to other sources, but also allows students to cut and paste citations directly into their papers, automatically creating footnotes and a bibliography--which seems vaguely like cheating. "No, it's not," says Williams. "It's a better paper, in less time."
Questia has company. Planning to roll out this summer, ebrary, with backers like Random House and McGraw-Hill, vows to offer tens of thousands of books. NetLibrary, a Boulder, Colo., firm offers 26,000 books and 250 publications online to libraries.
Williams says his idea came to him in 1997 while he was a Harvard Law School student. Even Harvard's vaunted library often had books missing, either hoarded by professors or hidden by overachieving classmates. Williams had no time to waste. The son of a plumber, he had to earn a living. Exasperated, he thought, Why not put the Library of Congress online?
To cover just the social studies and the humanities, he figured he needed to buy the rights to 50,000 books and to digitize them. It took 10 months to find his first investor, Compaq co-founder Rod Canion, who put in $5 million of the initial $45 million raised in 1999. Questia has signed 200 publishers to date and offers 40,000 books and 4,000 journal articles. The digitization process involved shipping the books--including tomes by George Washington from 1750--to the Philippines, where 6,000 workers ripped them up for scanning.
The company's research shows that most students can afford the monthly $19.95, or an annual fee of $149, for access. "Kids today have a ton of money--about $260 a month besides book money," says marketing head Kathleen Clark. Many students are older "multitaskers," combining school, work and family life. They can't be in the stacks at midnight.
Christopher Warnock, 34, the CEO of ebrary.com (his dad heads Adobe), is betting that his pricing model will be more appealing. Copying or downloading files will cost only 15[Cents] to 25[Cents] a page--and the library will get most of the payoff. "It's totally accessible to everyone on the Internet. And no membership, no up-front costs," he says.