Canadian Review of Materials: A Periodical's Transition

Duncan Thornton <cmeditor@mts.net>
Peter Tittenberger
Canadian Review of Materials (published by the Manitoba Library Association)
http://portal.mbnet.mb.ca/cm
Tel./fax: +1 204 992 2788

Introduction

Canadian Materials (CM), published by the Canadian Library Association (CLA), was the school and library market's standard reviewing journal for Canadian books, videos, etc. produced for young people or their educators for 25 years. Toward the end of 1994, the cost of producing and mailing a bimonthly periodical became unsustainable for the CLA. In the spring of 1995, however, the Manitoba Library Association (MLA) bought the rights to CM, with the intention of using the Internet to publish the magazine electronically--and more economically--over the World Wide Web.

A successful product

The MLA planned from the beginning to use the new medium's speed and digital nature to add more value to the publication. The physical appearance of a book--for example, its cover and illustrations--is an important consideration for schools and libraries contemplating a purchase, particularly when choosing from the large number of children's picture books published in Canada.

Where the old, paper Canadian Materials rarely had either color or illustrations, using color images of scanned book covers and sample illustrations soon became the norm for a title reviewed in the new CM. Similarly, maintaining an up-to-date index of reviewed titles (with hypertext links to the actual reviews) has been a relatively simple matter.

And using the new medium's speed and facility worked as well or better than hoped. The old, paper CM published a large issue containing 40 or more reviews bimonthy--but with a bimonthly schedule, and the delays involved in physical printing and mailing, it was not uncommon for titles to be out of print by the time the review appeared. Increased timeliness was therefore part of adding real value for the magazine's readers. From the beginning, the MLA planned to publish a weekly, and up-to-date journal.

The ability of the new medium to deliver timeliness was demonstrated with the first issue of the new magazine (now known as CM: an electronic reviewing journal of Canadian materials for young people), which was posted on the Web 16 June 1996, only eight days after staff were hired--a schedule that would have been almost impossible in a print publication. Staff have maintained a weekly schedule, without missing a deadline, since. We have on more than one occasion published reviews simultaneously with a title's official launch.

In addition, we have added timely interviews, articles, and features of interest to our audience. For example, we published an interview with director John Paskievich along with a review of his film, If Only I Were an Indian, on the same day it premiered. We also distribute various weekly features (like the Great Canadian Trivia Contest and the Little Math Puzzle) as resources for teachers.

So by using the speed and varied capabilities of Hypertext Markup Language--hypertext links from the index, related reviews, and advertising, and the ready incorporation of scanned cover images and sample illustrations, as well as occasional sound clips, etc., where appropriate--the electronic CM quickly became a demonstrably superior resource compared with the old paper version in terms of quality, depth of information, and timeliness. As time goes on, we have continued to improve the product--the recent addition of a search engine that can find titles based on practically any criteria is an example. Feedback from readers has been almost unanimously positive--this is a typical letter from a reader, in this case from the Kelowna Curriculum Resources Center in British Columbia:

. . . a quick note to let you know how enthused we are with CM: an electronic journal. . . . I have had nothing but positive responses from the District Teacher-Librarians who have accessed it! I expect it could be the catalyst to encourage more of our T-Ls to explore the Internet. We appreciate how easy it is to access reviews and print our searches. The electronic format is so much superior to the old print format in terms of access and storage.
No more missing volumes and information at our fingertips!
Keep up the excellent work!
Bill Fleming,
Resource Center Librarian

CM has also been awarded a reasonably impressive range of honors by the Internet publishing community:

In short, CM quickly succeeded in its goal of using the new communication technology to provide easy access to the most timely and comprehensive bibliographic tool possible for the review of Canadian materials for young people and their educators.

A marketing struggle

In contrast to the success of the new CM as a bibliographic resource, our original marketing plan can be kindly described as naive and unsuccessful.

CM was born with approximately $80,000 in funding from Canadian Heritage and Industry Canada to set the magazine up and see it through its first year of operation. Accordingly, the plan was simply to notify the paper magazine's existing readership of approximately 1,300 that the magazine was now available over the Internet, and to allow free access to the first sixteen issues. By that time, the MLA assumed that the majority of the old readers would have happily transferred their subscription to the new (and superior) electronic journal. At $42/year per subscription, this money, plus a reasonable amount of advertising income, would cover the ongoing costs of producing the magazine (which were now much lower--really only staff salaries and postage, as the cost of electronic publishing is insignificant compared to printing and mailing a paper magazine).

To the degree that the electronic CM could be seen as actually a new magazine, this goal would have been overly optimistic even in terms of traditional publishing, where a magazine usually takes a year or two to find its audience. But the assumption was that the change of medium did not really amount to a change of identity.

In fairness it should also be noted that the entire electronic publishing plan was essentially an emergency attempt by the Manitoba Library Association to preserve an important Canadian resource; conceived quickly in the early part of 1995 once it had become clear that the paper CM would have to close shop. Although the MLA was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new medium, as an organization it had little experience or expertise in it. And though even now probably no one can say what form or nature the World Wide Web in particular, and the Internet in general will eventually take, in terms of Internet history, early 1995 was a long time ago, and even those of us who were already old hands on the Internet knew much less than we do now.

In any case, the plan didn't work. There are several reasons we can now identify:

Lack of access

Although we received, and continue to receive, extremely positive feedback from those who actually read the magazine, we also received more than one letter like this one from a school in Ontario:

I am very disappointed that CM is no longer available in hard copy. As a long time subscriber, we shall miss this publication. "It's great that you are producing CM in electronic format. However, I think you may have lost sight of the fact that many school libraries, mine included, do not have the hardware required to access your publication via the Internet. Faced with shrinking budgets we will probably not have the means to receive CM for some time. . .

While the Prime Minister recently promised to have all schools in the country hooked up to the information highway, it will be some time before this becomes reality, and certainly as of the electronic CM's birth, a large percentage of the paper version's readers were unable to find us. Essentially, there were not enough schools and libraries on-line. CM is still a year or two ahead of our old audience in terms of connectivity.

Lack of comfort

In conversation with potential subscribers, we found that many staff at institutions that were hooked up were not yet comfortable using the new technology, or lacked sufficient access to it. Even schools with Internet access often have only one machine hooked up somewhere in the building, and not necessarily easily used by the teachers and librarians most interested in our product. In many schools, the Internet is a resource/toy for students rather than a tool for teachers, who are last in line to get access.

Cultural barriers

The Internet's culture and history are one of a repository of free resources. A publication attempting to charge for access is competing with an almost infinite amount of information, much of it of very high quality, that is free. And just as, in general, Internet users believe in free expression, they also believe in free access to it. The Graphic, Visualization, & Usability Center's 3rd WWW User Survey of Web users' willingness to pay for access to web sites found that the number of users who declared they were simply unwilling to do so was 10 times larger than the number who declared that they were. Significantly for CM, the survey found that educational users were the least likely to be willing to pay.

Institutional barriers

A further barrier was simply the novelty of Internet publishing. Even in institutions with no technical barriers to access, there is usually still no budget line for paying for an Internet publication; one librarian told us it would take a special meeting of her board to approve such an extraordinary expense. In any case, after seven months of operation, subscription revenues amount only to about $4,200, or about 5 percent of CM's budget. Moreover, during the period in which we moved from free access to charging for subscriptions (from the beginning of Volume II, on October 13 through January 1996), the period in which we originally expected the greatest growth, there was almost no growth in subscription or reader numbers.

CM staff, who were closer to the numbers than the MLA volunteer management board, saw the problem looming, probably before the free trial period expired in mid-October 1995, but had to work hard to convince a reluctant board that the plan--which should have worked, by print standards--was leading to failure, and that a new approach would have to be developed if the magazine was to survive. By the end of 1995, the Board had agreed that the pay-for-access strategy would not work; by the 12 January 1996 issue, CM reinstituted a free-access policy.

In fact, because of the technical issues involved in setting up restrictions to the CM site, and a staff who, because they anticipated the eventual abandonment of the pay-for-access policy, were perhaps not highly motivated to set up the necessary structures, there was never a technological barrier against anyone accessing the CM site. But simply declaring there was seemed to work almost as well in terms of discouraging readers.

The new plan 1--increasing readership

The new plan for CM was based on the notion that a successful marketing and revenue strategy should use the nature of the medium to our advantage rather than resist it.

Still, the basic goal of moving from public to private money did not change. Rather, the source of the private money shifted from charging readers for access to our information to charging advertisers/sponsors for access to our readers. Ultimately, we hope to be self-sustaining entirely through private revenue, but in the short to middle term (including years two and three of publication) some combination of public and philanthropic funding would probably be necessary to cover shortfalls.

Since we are a new venture in a new industry, using a rapidly evolving technology in a quickly changing social structure, all our plans had to be tentative. We knew, however, that the original marketing scheme would not work.

What follows is a hopeful, but not unrealistic scenario for the long-term sustainability of CM.

Free access

Though the new marketing strategy does not restrict access to CM to paid subscribers, we continue to ask regular readers for an annual donation of $42. But we do not shut out (or even suggest that we might) those who haven't paid.

CM has become akin to shareware, or perhaps public television. Those who contribute will be recognized, and some subscription monies will likely come in, but most readers will, for one reason or another, not get around to paying. The shareware concept is important, however, because it establishes the worth of the magazine.

Since we continue asking readers for $42/year, when we approach funders to provide block access to a given constituency (for example, a Department of Education, to pay for all schools in a province to have access to CM), they can compare their contribution with the amount it would cost that many readers to pay CM the fee due for annual use.

Promoting readership

Instead of devoting our marketing efforts to selling the magazine to subscribers, we are instead promoting ourselves as widely as possible as a resource that can be freely accessed. Our goal is to raise readership to levels that will attract substantial private advertising and/or sponsorship.

Less reliance on the Web

Key to developing our new plan was realizing how people actually integrate the Internet into their work habits. While those of us who essentially work on the Net might be different, as the recent American Internet User Survey suggests, few normal people make a habit of revisiting web sites periodically.

And despite all of the extras associated the WWW version of the magazine, it turns out that most of our readers prefer reading it as e-mail. This does, after all, more closely parallel a subscription to a physical magazine; subscribers get it delivered to their mailbox, where they can scan through it as part of a normal workday, rather than have to make a special trip to some place where the information is put on display.

Here it seems the Internet is more like print, where people like current information delivered to them, than like other electronic media (TV and radio), where people regularly check the same sources of information on a daily or weekly basis. Obviously one could argue about this distinction depending on whether you believe that turning on the TV and changing the channel is an active or passive behavior. In any case, using the Web is still more effort, at this point, than receiving e-mail.

Thus, the new strategy relies more heavily on e-mail; CM uses the e-mail list-serv (text-only) version of the magazine to promote the Web-site, and uses a weekly posting of our table of contents to various newsgroups whose audience is similar to ours to promote both the list-serv and Web-site. In fact, where we can without annoying readers or getting bounced off lists, we mail or post the complete text of the magazine weekly to various lists and newsgroups. (This has pitfalls if you make a mistake.)

Potential audience for a free CM

Because CM, the World Wide Web, and even the Internet itself are all recent developments, finding a basis for reliable numbers is difficult, but a good benchmark for our potential audience might be the newsgroup rec.arts.books.childrens.

The most recent "arbitron" survey of newsgroup traffic shows that rec.arts.books.childrens has 17,931 regular readers, and 1,002 postings a month, that is, almost 18 thousand people who keep track of a newsgroup that has more than 30 new messages every day. (One particularly popular and valuable presence on the newsgroup is Wendy Betts's "Notes from the Windowsill" reviewing journal of children's books both current and classic.)

Since these 18 thousand people have already shown a willingness to spend hours a week reading a free resource devoted to children's literature, it is reasonable to assume that a regular posting of our table of contents on the newsgroup will in time entice most of the Canadians among them either to subscribe to our e-mail version or to read us at our web site.

Note that the World Wide Web is a more user-friendly, and more used aspect of the Internet than are newsgroups, that reference materials and periodicals are the most popular part of the Web (GVU Survey), and that use of the Web is increasing by 35 percent every six months. So although we can assume that somewhat less than 10 percent of rec.arts.books.childrens' readers are Canadians, looking for approximately 1,500 additional Canadian readers through this method is probably a reasonable forecast within the first four to six months.

Similarly, regular postings listing the contents of the current issue of CM on SchoolNet (there are approximately 650 readers of this high-traffic mailing list), along with information about its free availability, either through automatic e-mail subscriptions or on the Web through provided uniform resource locators, should easily draw in several hundred additional readers with virtually no effort. This is, after all, also an audience already showing its ability and willingness to spend time on the Internet pursuing educational resources.

Besides rec.arts.books.childrens and SchoolNet, there are several other high-volume literature- and education-centered Internet newsgroups and mailing lists (as well as non-Internet networks such as the First Class-based CanadaNet, most of whose users also have Internet access), all of which we are targeting with the same method.

Finally, to reach the substantial audience who have Internet access but are not regular or experienced users, we also plan to advertise in traditional media and redouble our efforts to gain news coverage in newspapers, magazines, and TV programs such as Hi-Tech Culture and Undercurrents. Here our status as a nonprofit and educational venture will help us get free, or reciprocal, advertising and publicity.

Since we are offering something valuable and current at no expense beyond a few minutes of their time, we expect to get a large response from potential readers.

We have also, as mentioned, started posting the complete text of the weekly e-mail version of CM to appropriate mailing lists and newsgroups. This certainly expands our exposure, but unfortunately as the readers we reach this way are passive, there is no reliable method of metering how many actually notice CM amidst the other items of mail or posting.

Expanding our mandate to increase our audience

Coverage of specifically Canadian materials remains the reason for CM's existence; however, by adding some regular coverage of international titles, we expect to increase the size and scope of our audience, and thus our revenue base.

This coverage will always be secondary, but reviews giving a Canadian perspective on international titles will not only be a service to our traditional audience (Canadian teachers and librarians, who must often choose between Canadian and international titles), but should interest a substantial number of international readers and publishers. Of course, CM will always be of more interest to Canadians, but in the long term, we have to be only 10 percent as successful in attracting the international audience as the Canadian to more than double our readership. The ease of cross-border publication is another virtue of electronic publication; by contrast, getting cross-border distribution of a paper magazine is notoriously difficult.

Already we have a large Australian readership, for example, and an increasing interest from Australian publishers. We also of course have opened ourselves up as a venue to U.S. software companies, which as a group have deep pockets compared to our more traditional advertisers, the publishers of Canadian children's books and videos.

(Because of our new, expanded reviewing policy, our name has had to change again, this time to: CM: Canadian Review of Materials.)

By promoting a free quality product and pursuing an international readership, we expect 6,000 additional readers within 12 months.

A new plan 2--future potential audience for a free CM

If we can remove ourselves from a marketing universe restricted by the diminishing time and budgets of professional teachers and librarians, after establishing ourselves with a new and expanded readership base, we can expect our readers to climb proportionately with the numbers of Internet users. Roughly, that will mean a doubling every 18 months or so until virtually every school and middle-class home in Canada has access.

As mentioned, at present, in many schools that are connected, Internet access is limited to one or two machines primarily used by students.

This is not surprising given the significant technological requirements for graphical access to the World Wide Web--currently even a budget system runs in the $1,500 range. But prices for the necessary technology drop, Web access will soon be no more costly than having a television and a phone line. As more schools have multiple machines with Internet access, an increasing proportion will have regular readers of CM.

Again, as we are delivering a quality product at no cost, we assume that once they have sufficient access, in a large proportion of the 25,000 or so schools in the country at least one teacher or librarian will be reading CM.

In the longer term, as the massive cultural change that the Internet is bringing about takes hold, we can expect that a much larger proportion of people with access will make using the Internet and checking pertinent Web resources a part of their work habits. A recent survey of Web users suggests this change is already beginning:

Overall people spend a considerable amount of time on the Web, with 41% of the users report using their browser between 6 and 10 hours/week and 21% between 11 and 20 hours/week, an increase of 5% and 6% since 1st October. Over 72% responded that they use their Web browser at least once a day! These findings are very encouraging to services like electronic news that attempt to provide daily content--the audience is tuned-in and present.
[Source: Graphic, Visualization, & Usability Center's (GVU) 3rd WWW User Survey.]

But whether the use of the World Wide Web as such continues to grow at these rates does not significantly affect CM's outlook. Even if most Internet users do not get in the habit of routinely looking over sites that, like CM, update their information frequently, since CM is also sent out as e-mail, arriving in readers' electronic mailboxes like a magazine, it will be read in any case.

Moreover, there is a clear trend toward integration of Internet services, so that readers who have become interested in a title by the text-only review in the e-mail version of CM will only be a mouse-click away from accessing the "value-added" WWW edition that will give them graphics, links to related titles and advertisers, and so on.

If we can attract the anticipated 6,000 readers within the next 12 months, we can reasonably expect that institutional and private readership will grow to 20,000 within the next three to five years.

As of this writing (31 March 1996), this combination of methods has been increasing our readership by approximately 50 per week since mid-January, when the new strategy was implemented. At this rate, we will have 3,000 (rather than the hoped-for 6,000) readers by the end of 1996, but we expect that this growth will not only continue but accelerate as our promotion builds on itself (for example, the number of pages that link to CM has increased to more than 100 sites from around the world).

A new plan 3--using increased readership for revenue

Again, we are a pioneering effort in a new field. It takes time, and repeated personal contact, for any venue to establish itself with advertisers. Advertisers as a group are only beginning to become comfortable with using the Web as an advertising medium. And the most obvious source of advertising revenue for CM--Canadian publishers--are in a financial squeeze.

Nonetheless, we are optimistic that this can eventually become our primary source of revenue for several reasons:

Web advertising is growing at a fantastic rate.

Nine months ago, it was difficult to find an advertisement on the Web; now they are almost ubiquitous. Estimates are that $10 million dollars will have been spent on Web advertising in 1995, but Forrester Research (quoted in InformationWeek) projects that number will grow to $2.2 billion, or by more than 20 times, within five years.

More and more publishers have an internet presence.

Even in the time since the electronic CM began, there has been a marked difference in the amount of awareness and comfort potential advertisers we speak with have about Web advertising. The tremendous growth in the number of corporations with Web sites makes it vastly easier for them to implement advertising links.

The demographics of web readers are superb.

Again, from the GVU April (1995) survey:

In summary, the respondents are typically white, married, North American, with computer or educational occupations... with an estimated average income of $69,000.

Since CM's readers will be skewed towards parents and education professionals, we provide advertisers with an even better than average audience.

Our audience demographics are better.

Since our audience is by definition both technically literate and interested in education, it is precisely the target audience computer and software companies most want to reach. We can expand our advertising base far beyond the Canadian book-publishing industry.

Projections about advertising revenue depend on more unknown factors than any other part of planning for CM's future. It is unlikely that advertising will meet all of CM's expenses in the next two to three years. As with schools and libraries, there remain institutional barriers. (Many advertisers still do not have space in their budget allotted for Internet projects.)

We may need some ongoing funding from government agencies, charitable organizations, or major business sponsors while waiting for the market to catch up to the technology. For any of these groups, however, CM's audience and mandate will make us an attractive project for funding as long as we use the methods outlined above to increase our readership. We can also expect a lag-time between growth in readers and growth in advertising revenue.

But with an expanded readership and the growth of Internet awareness and comfort among advertisers, we look forward to advertising income of at least $1,200 a week (a level that would bring in about $60,000 annually) by 1997.

This number will still be short of what we will need to sustain the magazine, but it will be vastly larger than our current income from subscriptions. What more can be achieved beyond the next 12 to 18 months is difficult to predict. But with the expected increases in Internet usage, and the projected expansion of Web advertising, we are be hopeful about the long term.

In the meantime, if we can expand our readership by the methods outlined above, we must trust that the workings of the advertising marketplace, government or philanthropic recognition of the value of a popular educational resource, or a combination thereof will sustain us.

Finally, expanding to include international coverage will substantially increase our chances of success, since it both allows advertisers to reach a broader market and increases our chances of attracting advertising from large U.S. concerns. Until now we could only offer U.S. publishers or their Canadian distributors ads for their products, but not reviews, something advertisers dislike. Since the change in policy, the initial response from queries about review copies from international print and software publishers has been unanimously positive, which bodes well for the advertising.

As explained, we expect advertising revenue to necessarily lag behind growth in readership; nonetheless, while our readership has increased approximately 40 percent since the implementation of our new strategy, our advertising numbers have more than doubled.

Conclusion

Based on the numbers of readers we know are willing to spend considerable time reading free information of the same general kind that CM provides (but less professionally produced and presented), a combination of free access and aggressive marketing should raise our Canadian readership to 3,000 by 1997. With the addition of an international audience, we should reach 6,000 readers.

One way or another, larger numbers will mean easier funding. But simply in terms of advertising revenue, increasing the number of Canadian readers to a few thousand, expanding our mandate to attract international readers and publishers, and pursuing advertisers beyond the book-publishing industry should mean an annual advertising revenue of $60,000 will be possible by the 1997-1998 year.

Longer-term forecasts are inherently unreliable. But since every estimate about the Internet's growth forecasts rapid increases in both users and advertising dollars for the foreseeable future, we can reasonably assume that by following the methods outlined above, CM's readership will continue to increase substantially. As a result, we can expect to become financially self-sustaining through corporate advertising and sponsorship within the next few years.