Thomas Register: The End of the Beginning


There was a very consistent reaction to the news this week that Thomas Publishing was ending the print edition of Thomas Register. I'd characterize it as being "shocked but not surprised."

I think the shock was driven by the symbolism of the decision. When this publishing icon, one of the largest and most successful buying guides of all time, says so clearly that print is passe, we all then have to acknowledge that the future of our industry is online. By now haven't all database publishers acknowledged that their future is online? Yes, but that acknowledgement hasn't always been backed up with action, in part because there is no clear path to get from here to there.

The lack of surprise comes from the fact that Thomas was an early and aggressive player on the Web. At a point in time when the future of online was anything but clear, Thomas made the huge gamble that the value of an online audience would ultimately be worth more than the print subscription revenue it was putting at risk. It won, and it won big. The transition for Thomas has been anything but painless, but by starting so early, it became a major Web destination well before there were even such things as keywords to buy, and that has given it a huge competitive advantage. Also, by starting early, Thomas learned a lot and was able to make some mistakes without incurring much damage, all while hedging its bet by maintaining its print edition and selling a print/online package. If there isn't one already, this would make one amazing business school case study.

Now that Thomas has killed the print version of Thomas Register, there will be a lot of soul searching by the industry with publishers asking themselves whether it's time to discontinue their own print products. While our research says that print will move into a period of accelerating decline over the next 2-5 years, most publishers will find that 20-25% of their customers will continue to prefer print for the foreseeable future. Most publishers can still economically accommodate this market. Thomas, with its 33-volume annual behemoth, was dealing with atypical print economics.

As someone who cut his teeth (and his hands, re-making pages with an X-acto knife) working on the print edition of Thomas Register, I am certainly going to miss those "big green books." At the same time, we are watching a whole new era unfold before our eyes, one where our information and our value are no longer constrained by the limitations of the print format, but only by our imaginations.

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