The sale of Chadwyck-Healey has left its founder Pounds 30 million richer but Alison Goddard finds him looking to youth for new net challenges
Last week Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey sold his eponymous electronic publishing company to the United States-based Bell & Howell for more than Pounds 30 million. Now he plans to invest some of his fortune in young internet businesses.
Best known for its web-based Literature Online database containing 250,000 works of English and American literature, Chadwyck-Healey deals with humanities texts including the entire English poetry canon from Anglo-Saxon times to the present. It has more than 40 web-based databases for researchers in the humanities.
The secret of the company's success lies in its integrated service. Researchers can seamlessly search many databases for information by submitting just one query.
"Chadwyck-Healey has been easily the most innovative of electronic publishers," says Daniel Greenstein, director of the Arts and Humanities Data Service, a non-commercial data service paid for by the funding councils and the Arts and Humanities Research Board. "Chadwyck-Healey was one of the first to take the risk and go online in a big way, moving away from CD-Roms."
Sir Charles established Chadwyck-Healey more than 25 years ago to publish reference and research materials for libraries and academic institutions. In 1991, the company set about publishing this material on searchable CD-Roms before moving into online provision.
According to Sir Charles, the shift was customer-driven. "In 1994, libraries in the US began to say that they didn't want information on CD-Roms, that they weren't right for a big organisation. It was 1995 before we began to react. Then in January 1996 we launched our first web service," he says.
Web publishers need to achieve a critical mass to flourish, and Chadwyck Healey achieved this by working with companies that would otherwise have been rivals.
"One of the interesting things about electronic publishing is that you have to collaborate and cooperate with your competitors," he says.
"For example, if you are trying to build a literature website and others have got something you want, then you have to collaborate to enhance both websites and make it possible to move seamlessly from one to the other. There is a lesson for traditional publishers here. The internet Oxford English Dictionary would be more successful through collaboration than as a stand-alone site."
Rates for Chadwyck-Healey's services vary. For example, access to The Guardian and The Observer archive would cost a university library Pounds 695 a year, while Literature Online costs Pounds 7,500.
"The higher education community appears to hold (Chadwyck-Healey) products in high regard. The only criticism from the community is that the products are very costly and some institutions have felt unable to justify the cost," says Nigel Lodge, director of the Combined Higher Education Software Team (Chest).
Chest has negotiated a deal with Chadwyck-Healey on behalf of the funding councils. Under the agreement, higher education libraries can get Literature Online for Pounds 2,500. But it is a price that some are still unable to afford. As higher education libraries form Chadwyck-Healey's main customer base, it is a dilemma that the company's new owners would be well advised to address.
Following the sale, 59-year-old Sir Charles is scaling back his involvement with the firm. He will remain a consultant but wants to concentrate on being an adviser and investor to young information technology businesses.
He already chairs ANT Ltd, a Cambridge-based software company that develops tiny browsers to help extend web communication capabilities to products such as mobile phones and car navigation equipment. He is looking for similar companies in which to invest his new wealth but does not want to overstretch himself: he says he will be getting involved on a one-by-one basis. Start-up companies must have a good business plan for Sir Charles to consider investing.
His continuing involvement with Chadwyck-Healey means that he will not be looking to invest in electronic publishing. But he will not be shelving his involvement in libraries: "I am going to use libraries rather than sell to them," he says.