September 27, 2007

Interview with CJ Rayhill, Senior Vice President at Safari Books Online

Welcome to the latest installment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around the subject is CJ Rayhill, Senior Vice President of Product Management and Technology at ebook company Safari Books Online. I've long been a fan of Safari's ebook model which allows participating libraries to choose content on a title by title basis rather than having to commit to a large and expensive complete collection. So, when I met some Safari people this past spring at Computers in Libraries I enlisted them in helping me find someone internally at Safari to interview. Eventually, CJ's name bubbled to the top. To say the least, I'm very happy with the results and very grateful to CJ for agreeing to be interviewed and for giving such insightful answers. Enjoy!

Q0. Hi CJ, would you mind telling us a little about your career path to this point and how you got to be Senior Vice President of Product Management & Technology at Safari.

Most of my career has been in software development and technology management within the financial services and healthcare industries. Back in 2000, I joined O'Reilly Media as their CIO, which was my first job within the publishing industry. I worked on the first incarnation of Safari Books Online when it was just an O'Reilly offering. Later in 2001, we re-launched the service as a joint venture with Pearson. So I've been involved with Safari Books Online (SBO) in some form or another for the last 7 years. SBO now represents the third largest sales channel for O'Reilly Media and is one of the fastest growing products for our publisher owners. I wanted to have the opportunity to help influence what the next generation of SBO will look like and have therefore taken a position at SBO as the SVP of Product Management & Technology.

Q1. Would you mind telling us a little about what Safari is all about?

Safari Books Online is simply the best online source for technical content available today. When you look at the computer trade book market, there are only four publishers that make up 81% of the titles offered (Pearson = 30%, Wiley = 26%, O'Reilly = 15% and Microsoft Press = 10%). SBO offers the full technical libraries of Pearson, O'Reilly and MS Press. And when you look at it in the context of the most popular books based on actual sales data, 65 of the top 100 books in almost any computer book category are available through the Safari Books Online service. There is simply no other service that offers the kind of quality technical content that SBO does. And SBO offers plenty of ways to access the content. You can choose to subscribe to the entire library or you can choose a bookshelf option which allows you to have a certain number of titles available and then rotate them off and choose new titles every 30 days if you wish. You can download chapters in .pdf format for off-line viewing. You can access videos and short-form content (Shortcuts) and you can even subscribe to books as they are being written (Roughcuts) on hot technical topics where people are hungry for information. You can search across the full content of all titles within the service and find excellent answers quickly. I think every developer, sysadmin or creative professional can increase their productivity by a minimum of 10% with this service.

Q2. Is there and all-digital business model for a book publisher? Or should I say "book" publisher?

I'm not sure what you are referring to here but if you mean is there a possibility of just distributing content through a digital service like SBO (vs. printing books) then the answer is yes. But I don't think publishers should be looking at their products as all digital or all print. I think the goal of publishers needs to be the creation of good, quality content that is offered in any way that customers want to consume it and find it useful. There will always be content that is better to be read cover-to-cover in a printed book. Other content might be more useful in digital form only. It's the combination of all of these possibilities that will create the best experience for customers.

Q3. How do you think the structure of your content will evolve? Is the collection going to ultimately rely less on adding electronic versions of paper books and instead add more targeted content that's designed to be digital rather than adapted from a different medium? Like the PDFs product for example?

I think that all forms of content will remain relevant for many years to come. Whether it is scanned images of paper books, XML, pdf's, audio or video (with or without transcription) -- they all have a place well into the future.

Q4. Safari U. is a really interesting product that seems to really take advantage of the digital, remixable, mashupable nature of your content. How's the uptake been? And what's the future of the text book? Do you think this model would apply to other disciplines as well? Physics, marketing, philosophy?

The future of the textbook market is clearly shifting. You have products like SafariU, iChapters, and CourseSmart beginning to emerge to solve a difficult issue -- the high cost of textbooks. In addition, most higher-education courses involve exposure to content from multiple sources which makes the cost of purchasing all of the required and recommended reading for students out of reach. So what happens is that students end up not even purchasing required content which must diminish the value of their educational experience. I'm not sure which model will emerge as the clear leader in this space, but SafariU was O'Reilly's initial attempt to provide a better value for both instructor's and students within the computer science/information technology disciplines.

Q5. What do you see as Safari's biggest competition, other ebook publishers or free stuff on the net?

Both! Our biggest partners (Google, Amazon, etc.) can potentially be our biggest competitors. And the balancing act is not getting any easier. Especially for technical reference-type books, how much do you give away for free on Google Book Search before it eats into your revenue stream possibilities? Does the exposure help or hurt sales? I think free content is great -- but I also think that there is a place for being able to search across and access good, vetted content from trusted sources. The next 3-5 years is going to be one of the most revolutionary periods for publishers in my opinion, especially in our space.

Q6. How does usage of a typical book on safari compare with the number of copies sold of the physical book?

I'm not sure how I would even begin to compare those two things. Online usage is a very different thing than book sales. You may buy a book, but we may never know if you read it or not. But when you access content online, we have a lot of information about actual usage of the content. This can be very helpful in informing us on what our customers are interested in and what they find most helpful. As I mentioned above, on a larger scale, SBO is the third largest sales channel for O'Reilly today, only behind Amazon and Barnes&Noble. So that's a lot of access!

Q7. Safari has mostly concentrated on the computing/software application/development side of the spectrum so far. Any chance of more engineering or other content down the road?

We are very interested in expanding the Safari offering into other disciplines and are actively pursuing other genres. It's an excellent platform and business model that we think works well for many subject areas.

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