Self-help Web site HowStuffWorks said Thursday it plans to significantly expand its online reference material by slicing and dicing books into versions meant for an Internet audience.
With new funding from rebel financier Carl Icahn, the HowStuffWorks Web site is now digitizing the entire library of Publications International Ltd., a 35-year-old publisher of books concerning interactive learning, cooking, sports, automotive, inspirational and leisure, plus photo collections and stationery items.
Once the books can be viewed on the Internet, HowStuffWorks plans to repackage the material into easy-to-find articles categorized by any number of different topics.
The new feature, which goes into effect after the new year, has many of the same elements that make up the nightmare scenario that book publishers envisioned starting five years ago, when major universities and other interests began making entire books available on the Internet.
From the time of the first printing presses, books have always been sold in their entirety, mainly because the technology behind book publishing didnt allow for an effective piecemeal distribution. Moreover, that allowed publishers to have absolute control over what they published.
But once in a digital format, books can be viewed piecemeal, thus creating new ways of distributing them beyond what publishers intended, and loosening publishers control over their own material.
HowStuffWorks is exploiting one newfound wrinkle from the Internets collision with book publishing; there will be others, say digital publishing analysts.
"Books are no longer going to be seen as being from pages 1 to whatever is the last page," said a HowStuffWorks spokesman. "Rather, they are just now bits of information."
Other publishing houses have made similar strides to embrace the potential new ways of distributing their intellectual property. But none has repackaged the material, like HowStuffWorks plans to do.
Publishing giant HarperCollins said recently it plans to keep its books under digital lock and key to defend against a growing threat from Internet search engines book search features.
By doing so, the publisher can stop unwanted online interests "from just grabbing our books and sending them all over the Internet," said HarperCollins Group Vice President Brian Murray.
Leading Internet search engines Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp.s MSN have their own book projects, each involving tens of millions of books. Because of the works ambitious nature, each major search engine is only now focused on scanning the books into their databases. At their fastest pace, its only a few thousand a day.
Thats left room for HowStuffWorks and others to concoct the new business models that come to mind when the Internet takes hold of books, and act upon them.
HowStuffWorks says it has exclusive Internet rights to the PIL books—past, present and published in the future. In this way, its avoiding a copyright imbroglio Google still faces over part of its publishing program.
"We might represent the future of online books," said a HowStuffWorks representative. "While most of the digital publishing industry is touting the ability to search individual books, HowStuffWorks is jumping to the next step and completely reorganizing a library."