November 23, 2007

Interview with Sasha Gurke, Sr. Vice President and Co-Founder, Knovel.

Welcome to the latest installment of my occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around I'm interviewing Sasha Gurke, Sr. Vice President and Co-Founder, Knovel Corp. I've long been an fan of Knovel's products and appreciated their business model. When I met Rick Spiegel at the ASEE St. Lawrence Chapter conference a few weeks ago while he was demoing some Knovel products, I asked him if there was anyone in Knovel on the product development side that I could interview. Rick put me in touch with Sasha, for which I am grateful. Thanks to Rick for getting us in touch and thanks to Sasha for such a stimulating interview.

Q0. Sasha, please tell us a little about yourself and your career path to this point.

I am a chemist by training but spent last 27 years of my career in technical information, first at Chemical Abstracts Service and then at Knovel and a predecessor company. After helping to found Knovel in 1999, I, as a VP of Product Development, was responsible for creation of Knovel's award-winning product, including the website and the content. Since late 2006, my primary responsibilities shifted to Marketing and Editorial areas. I travel and present a lot now, bringing back feedback from the customers and keeping a hand on the pulse of the industry.

Q1. Could you tell about the Knovel ebook products (present and in the pipeline) and your business model. And what exactly do you guys mean by "Knovelization?"

Knovel is an aggregator of STM reference works, including handbooks and databases, in 19 subject areas ranging from aerospace to oil and gas engineering and from chemistry to food science. We just added a new subject area, Earth Science, covering such topics as Geology, Geotechnical Engineering, Oceanography, and Petrology. Most of our content comes from well-known publishers such as Wiley and Elsevier, although some is developed internally and available exclusively on Knovel. We have an annual subscription model with concurrent user license. Customers can subscribe to the entire Knovel Library or special collections, including premium products and subject areas. We have 3 types of products: full text searchable e-books, databases and interactive e-books with live tables, graphs and equations. Databases and interactive e-books are field searchable and are very popular with our customers because they increase their productivity. They are our main differentiator in the marketplace. The process of making an ordinary e-book interactive and resulting product are unique to Knovel and we called it "Knovelization".

Q2. I'm sure you get this a lot, but what is the delay between a new edition of a print reference being released and its Knovelization?

It depends on the editorial priority and on our publishing partners. Some publishers wait up to 6 months before they make a title available to aggregators. It takes Knovel production folks about a month to load a title with high priority, e.g., those requested by our customers. Knovelized titles require 2-4 months to load because of the work involved.

Q3. Do you have a lot of content that is you have created rather than licensed? Is this an area that's going to grow?

We have 18 titles that we either created ourselves or took a copyright-free publication (often old and out of print) and gave it a second life. Many of these titles are large databases and interactive. Some, such as Unit Converter, are free tools. Currently, we are significantly expanding Knovel Critical Tables. Content creation is going to be a growth area for Knovel in the future.

Q4. Can you foresee a day when the print versions of the books you Knovelize will disappear completely and they will only exist in electronic format? And what will the next generation of Knovel products be like?

It is hard to imagine not having print versions, although, certainly, the trend is toward more content available either in both formats or in electronic format only. The latter is especially true for journals and databases. The next generation of Knovel products will have a more user-friendly interface and more robust search capabilities. We will continue to add value to our content knovelizing it and integrating it with 3rd party software tools and platforms. And, of course, we hope to enable our users to add their own content to Knovel, creating their own e-books from that content and selected content available on Knovel.

Q5. I think that librarians probably see the value in these products fairly quickly. But faculty and corporate scientists and engineers can be difficult to reach sometime so has it been difficult to get uptake on that side of the equation? How do you market to those groups and convince them of the value of your product?

You are right, it has been a challenge getting to the end user and we are not alone in the industry with this experience. Our answer is increasing awareness and explaining the benefits of Knovel to end users via frequent training webinars, interactive demos, a newsletter, and viral marketing, e.g., social networks. We exhibit at many trade shows and work with professional societies such as ASME and AIChE to reach their membership by providing access to some content. An important part of it is integrating Knovel into the work flow. In academia, this is being accomplished by offering Knovel-based course exercises to faculty. In the corporate world, we have an individual user registration program that allows us to "touch" the end users, learn more about their needs and be more responsive and proactive. Excellent customer support also plays an important role.

Q6. What have been some of the challenges so far?

The main challenges have been acquisition of certain high-value content, automation of content management for interactive products, search engine optimization, and uneven usage.

Q7. What do you see as your main competition? Wikipedia and other free stuff on the Web or something else entirely?

Wikipedia is a great general reference source that lacks the depth required in the STM field. Our main competition are publishers themselves. Most STM publishers have e-book sites with full back list and they are becoming more aggressive in pricing and marketing. With federated search becoming more widely adopted and expanding Google Book Search, it will be easier to search across different publishers bypassing aggregators.

Q8. Where do you see the broad field of scientific and technical publishing going in the next 5 to 10 years?

The amount of STM literature will continue to grow unabated, especially in the electronic format. We will see more of it being published in the languages of developing countries such as China. More e-content will be available free, especially in the journal arena, via social networks and Wikipedia-type sites. DRM will become a non-issue. There will be more advertisement driven business models. Librarians will demand perpetual licenses to e-content. Work flow integration of STM content and software tools will become a reality. This is what my crystal ball is saying but it has a crack :)

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