In another sign of the times, the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica announced it will no longer appear in print. The encyclopedia, considered the final word on a range of subjects, had regularly appeared as a printed set of reference books used in schools, libraries and homes for 244 years.
Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., puts things in perspective, noting that it’s content that ultimately matters, no matter how that content is presented to readers:
“In spite of our long history with print, I would like to point out that no single medium, neither books nor bits, is at the core of our mission. That mission is to be a reliable, up-to-date, and scholarly source of knowledge and learning for the general public, and I believe that 200 years from now, this mission will continue to be vital and relevant and that the people of the future who are committed to it will use the best available technology to fulfill it.”
The company will focus its efforts on its website as well as related educational sites and apps. There’s an Encyclopaedia Britannica app for iPad and iPhone, for example. Cauz points out that Britannica’s database holds more information that can actually be fit into printed editions, and can be updated within minutes. “We have completed our transition from print publisher of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to a digital provider of knowledge and e-learning solutions,” he says.
The New York Times’ Julie Bosman notes that Wikipedia, the online crowdsourced encyclopedia, has become the reference choice of many. “The site is now written and edited by tens of thousands of contributors around the world, and it has been gradually accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics.” Wikipedia, a free service, is also far cheaper than the $1,395 cost of a printed encyclopedia set.
For his part, Cauz points out that Britannica is more selective about the material it offers. “We cannot deal with every single cartoon character, we cannot deal with every love life of every celebrity,” he says. “But we need to have an alternative where facts really matter. Britannica won’t be able to be as large, but it will always be factually correct.”
Britannica’s business model has been shifting to digital formats for about 30 years now. “In 1981, Britannica created the first digital encyclopedia for LexisNexis and, in 1989, the first multimedia CD,” according to Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “In 1994 we launched the first encyclopedia on the Internet.”
Print encyclopedias only account for less than 1% of the Britannica’s revenue, with 85% coming from curriculum products in subjects like math, science and the English language. Another 15% comes from subscriptions to the company’s subscription-based website, which includes access to the full database of articles, videos, original documents and to the company’s mobile applications.