The paperless office is just around the corner, the experts tell us. Advances in information technology will soon do away with the need for hard copies of all those files, letters and reports – it’ll all be on our computers.
The only problem is, the paperless office has been just around that corner for two decades now, and we seem no closer to it than we were at the beginning of the Eighties. In fact, the more business functions are computerised, the more paper gets produced.
Now the experts are saying that the advent of CD-Rom publishing and the spread of the World Wide Web will soon mean the death of the paper-based directory. The truth, as always, is rather different.
Les Kelly, group publishing director at Miller Freeman Information Services, says: “Most of our products are paper products, because that’s how they started out, and that’s how our customers expect to get them. If we do migrate a product from paper to an electronic format, then there have to be real benefits for the user.”
For example, he points to the Conference Blue and Green Books which Miller Freeman publishes in both paper form and on CD-Rom. With the CD-Rom, the ability to search electronically for a conference venue by geographic location, meeting facilities or number of bedrooms is an enormous plus for users. Furthermore, pictures of those facilities can be included.
But Miller Freeman is in no mad rush to convert all of its products from paper to CD-Rom, or even online. For one thing, Kelly says, the idea that electronic publishing cuts costs is a myth, at least at this stage in the market’s development. If a paper-based product is converted to an electronic format, then in fact the expense to publishers usually escalates, because instead of paying the start-up costs for just one version, they have start-up costs for two. Also initial sales of the electronic version are likely to be small as the market gets established.
He adds: “I do not believe users will migrate to electronic products. And with a lot of our products, we expect users to take a bundle of the book and CD-Rom. When we make a book available in electronic form, most people want both.”
Paul Fry, strategic development director at Yellow Pages, says: “Obviously, paper is very accessible and easy to use. Its use is in-built from childhood, so it’s bound to be the most widely accepted format.” But Yellow Pages has had considerable success with directories published in other formats, including online and telephone-based – Talking Pages in other words. Fry stresses: “While there might be common elements, they are all separate products in their own right. They’re not just Yellow Pages transferred to a different format.”
Some of the most enthusiastic users of Talking Pages, says Fry, are advertisers who have tried other formats, both paper and electronic, and had bad experiences with them.
According to Fry, the Website, Yell, has similar advantages to Talking Pages, with the added bonus of being able to offer pictures. Electronic Yellow Pages, which has been available via Yell since January 1996, can carry diagrams and maps showing the location of a business.
He observes: “One of the forms of advertising we sell on Electronic Yellow Pages is a map – so you can not only phone a hotel and book a room, but also get a map showing where it is.” Eventually, Fry believes, the Internet service will not only include call completion, but also purchase completion, allowing the whole transaction to take place online. Yell is currently testing this with a flower company. But one form of electronic publishing which Fry admits Yellow Pages does not favour is CD-Rom.
“We’re not fans of it,” he says. “For the type of information we supply, it’s not really suitable. The main market for CD-Rom directories of companies seems to be direct marketers.”
Gary Zabel, managing director of Hollis Directories, best known for the Hollis PR book, says his company’s products are entirely paper-based, with the exception of a small amount drawn from the PR book which appears on the company’s Website.
Zabel says that Hollis has looked at migrating to electronic formats, and is evaluating its experiment with the Website mini-directory. But he adds: “We, along with I think most publishers, have software systems which are not easily compatible with the Internet. Quite a bit of manipulation has to be gone through. We are currently looking at our software.”
He has also done research among the PR directory’s particular market and has discovered that electronic publishing “certainly has been relatively slow at taking off”.
“The demand isn’t there to justify jumping into it.” If the company were to transfer one of its titles to CD-Rom format, it would most likely be its Willing’s Press Guide. “Willing’s is the only directory within the group which is purely information – the other directories contain large amounts of advertising and would be more difficult to convert.”
While Zabel admits there are specialist, niche titles which have converted, he believes that “most publishers have dipped a toe in the water and caught bad colds by going electronic because they think they have to”.
Peter Snook is publishing director at Reed Business Information. Now in charge of Reedbase and other electronic products, he was running the paper-based directories for 15 years, so has experience of both sides of the fence.
Snook says all the information available from Reed in a paper form is also available in an electronic form, although in some cases a CD-Rom product will contain the full text of half a dozen or more paper-based directories.
Snook is enthusiastic about new media, commenting: “The advantage of the electronic format is that it allows us to distribute products that are much more up to date. For example, our online service is updated daily, whereas in paper form the directories are only published annually.”
He adds: “There’s no doubt that to some degree electronic sales have reduced hard copy sales.” But, as Miller Freeman’s Les Kelly has found, there are a number of customers taking both versions.
From the users’ point of view, Snook believes, the ability to easily manipulate data is key. “They can mix and match data in seconds that would take weeks to do with paper-based directories.”
On the other hand, he says, “you can pull the book off the shelf and take it with you to another office much more easily than you can transfer a CD-Rom directory”.
The latest development in terms of online publishing revolves around Intranets, and Reed has been talking to a number of clients about allowing them to put their directories onto a central server, from where a number of users can access the information. But “the whole business of networked products is a minefield,” Snook warns.
The worry about Intranets and groupware for publishers revolves around multiple use of single copies of a product, how it can be controlled and how it should be charged for.
Snook is much happier with Reed’s experience of the Internet. Its British Exports directory of companies looking for overseas clients has a very successful Website, he says. “The Internet is international – it’s got no geographical boundaries and it’s very good for British companies looking to reach potential customers in other countries.”
The general consensus appears to be that new media can offer both publishers and users a great deal – but that publishers are approaching the matter with circumspection, given the speed at which changes still seem to be taking place in information technology.
This means that in the short and medium term, there appears to be no danger that paper-based directories will join the dinosaurs in the dustbin of history.
Not even the much-vaunted Internet is likely to kill off paper, it would seem. As Miller Freeman’s Kelly says with a certain amount of cynicism: “There’s a lot of hype about the Internet at the moment, but the reality is different.
“If finding a particular piece of information doesn’t matter, it works brilliantly. Every time you absolutely have to have that bit of information, it’s impossible to find.”
Online Information 97
The 21st Online Information Exhibition and Conference will take place from December 9 – 11 at the National Hall & Olympia Conference Centre in London.
Online Information is reportedly the largest information industry event in the world and last year featured an exhibition of more than 300 stands and 16,000 attendees. Last year’s conference attracted 1,200 delegates.
This year will feature defined “information trails”, enabling visitors to see at a glance which exhibitors are of interest and the product categories they represent.
The trails represented will include information management; electronic publishing services; corporate and financial information; news and media providers; legal and government information providers; and scientific, technical and medical information.
Dan Wagner, chief executive of MAID, will deliver the opening address under the title “Online Industry in Context”. MAID recently announced it had entered into a conditional agreement with Knight-Ridder to acquire its wholly owned subsidiary, Knight-Ridder Information, in order to become the front runner in the provision of online business information.
Commenting on the new information trails, Jill Cousins, marketing director for the event, says: “With more than 16,000 attendees expected during the three-day show coupled with our new location, this was an ideal time to ensure that visitors are able to identify and locate the exhibitors and products they wish to see as well as be able to plan their visit in advance.”