Encyclopedia Britannica decides to axe iconic print edition

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica will cease publishing its flagship encyclopedia and concentrate on its digital offerings. 

“We’d like to think our tradition is not to print, but to bring scholarly knowledge to the people,” said Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Britannica has printed the encyclopedia, which now runs to 32 volumes in length, since 1768. The 2010 edition was the last edition the company published. It has decided not to print what would be the 2012 edition, which would have been out by the end of the year. The company has about 4,000 sets of the 2010 edition still available for sale. Overall about 2 million sets have been printed through the entire run of the encyclopedia. 

Britannica’s move to stop printing encyclopedias is a telling moment in this point in history, when print is being superseded by websites and network-connected applications. 

Over the past few years, the print edition accounted for less than 1 per cent of Britannica’s revenue. “The market is not there,” Cauz said. The amount of material the company has amassed online has dwarfed the print edition. The effort it takes to pack the most relevant of that information into book form is considerable for the company. Even pricing-wise, the online edition makes better sense — at least for consumers: The basic subscription to the online version runs US$17 a year, or $1.99 a month, while the print set costs $1,400. 

Even though the print edition hasn’t been a significant form of revenue for the company for some time, Cauz admitted that the volumes are iconic for the company. The volumes, lined up authoritatively across a bookshelf, imparted a sense of gravitas about the material they contained and the mission of the company that published them. As a student, “the encyclopedia for me was the shortest time between doing homework and starting to play,” Cauz said. 

Such considerations, however, are “a generational issue,” Cauz said. Youths today often look at the 32-volume set and think that it seems too small, Cauz said. “The perception of what is comprehensive has changed significantly,” he said. “No one is expecting total comprehensiveness. The value proposition in our case is to be a reliable source. The print set can’t bring that reliability because it gets obsolete so quickly and because it doesn’t have all the material that is online.” 

The company has offered an online edition of the encyclopedia for the past 20 years, and now makes the majority of its revenue from online products and mobile applications. The online editions have served more than 100 million students, Cauz said. The site gets 580 million visitors a year.

Cauz admitted that the company must work harder to keep its name in front of its potential audience. By moving entirely online, Britannica is taking on online giant Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia written entirely by volunteers. Over the years, Britannica has changed the way it collects and edits information in a way that more closely resembles Wikipedia’s community-driven effort. The online Britannica is constantly updated. It includes multimedia assets such as sound recordings and video. It provides a forum for users to contribute additions, which then get considered by in-house editors. It also solicits contributions from notable world figures, such as Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu and Tony Hawk. 

More than 85 per cent of sales in the digital realm come from educational institutions, which buy bulk subscriptions for students. Over the next few years, however, Britannica wants to attract more general users for its apps and online services.

“We have this as a challenge. Britannica is profitable in the educational market, but in the consumer space, we need to do more to make sure people have access to the encyclopedia,” Cauz said. The company has estimated that each month people make between 1.2 billion and 1.5 billion search engine queries “for which Britannica would have the perfect answer,” he said. To this end, the company is working with Google and other search engines to make its material more visible in search results. 

To build awareness of the online offering, Britannica will also offer its entire online encyclopedia free for one week, beginning Wednesday. 

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab’s e-mail address is [email protected]

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