Monday, April 23, 2012

Why Encyclopaedia Britannica Went Out Of Print

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has been publishing its behemoth multi-volume compendium of human knowledge for 244 years, since it first appeared in 1768. That first edition consisted of just 3 volumes running 2,670 pages, growing through continual revision and expansion until it reached its final size of 32,030 pages spread across 32 volumes with the 15th edition in 1985. Production of the initial 15th edition required ten years at a cost of $32 million. The cost of a full set would run you $2,200.

The glacially slow pace of production has always been a difficulty with print, and all the more so when its content is in need of continual revision. With the pace of information changing at an ever increasing speed, it was only a matter of time before the rate of change outpaced Britannica's ability to keep up. With a new edition being published only every quarter-century such innovations as the Internet or the iPad might not have gained an entry into Britannica until better than a decade after their advent. By the time the $32 million dollar 15th edition appeared it was already outdated.

Although a policy of "continual revision" had been instituted in 1933 to deal with just this issue (in which new printing was done every year, with time-sensitive entries being updated in the intervening months), rapidly evolving fields of knowledge such as science and technology have continued to escalate at an exponential rate, making even a year too long a span of time to stay up to date, particularly in the face of a globally networked information age where news appears online the moment it occurs.

But the beginning of the end for Britannica in print actually began back in 1980, when the publishers declined an offer from Microsoft to produce the first comprehensive CD-ROM encyclopedia, believing it would cheapen their brand and undermine print sales (sound familiar anyone?). Undeterred, Microsoft went on to create Encarta using content from Funk & Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia instead. Encarta would become a mainstay of computer reference works for years to come, with the result that within three years of its release in 1993 sales of Britannica had declined by half, from an all-time high of $650 million in 1990 to $325 million by 1996, with print edition sales dropping from 117,000 to 55,000 units.

Meanwhile, the publishers had seen the errors of their ways and released a CD-ROM set of their own in 1994 (for just $995), as well as launching Britannica online, with a subscription rate of a mere $2000. Within two years the CD-ROM had dropped to two hundred bucks. The company was sold that same year to a Swiss financier for a paltry $125 million, a fraction of its former worth. Today, you can get the iPad app for free, with access to full content for just $1.99 per month. Information, they say, is power, and in a world where information is available only to the wealthy that power remains concentrated. When information is free, everybody is enriched.
The Britannica today: an interactive hyperlinked network of knowledge
Britannica has not been without its scandals or controversies either. From its cheapening through doorstep hawking during the Sears & Roebuck years (1920-1943), with its subsequent "simplifying" of information for a common populace, to the publication of Einbinder's scathing 1964 exposé, The Myth of Britannica (which found enough faults to fill up 390 pages of diatribe), it's hardly any wonder the free online resource Wikipedia flourished virtually overnight (Wikipedia is currently ranked #6 by Alexa, while E.B. Online is #114,852). Of course, it's two-thousand dollar price tag hasn't help much.

And lest you scoff at the vagaries of a public information database such as Wikipedia compared to the staunch authority that is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the journal Nature undertook a study in 2005 that showed articles in Britannica to be hardly more accurate than those on Wikipedia: the former had an average 2.92 mistakes per article while the latter rated only marginally worse with 3.86. Of course, few would argue that the credentials of Britannica contributors are vastly more authoritative, although Wikipedia has gotten much more stringent in its reference requirements over the years. And if you're talking about online authority, Alexa reveals that 2,123,583 sites link in to Wikipedia, while only 7,180 link to, which tells us where people are getting their information these days.

But the real point of all this is the general shift from print to digital that's occurring globally. Print suffers in nearly every way when compared to digital. Not only is digital dynamic and interactive, but it's unhindered by print's inherent limitations via an infinite network of hyperlinks. It allows for instantaneous access to a wide array of media, its content is specifically targeted to the user's needs, and it's continually evolving as the network itself evolves: every link leads to a destination that may have been updated since your last visit, even if that visit was just an hour ago. It will not fade or age with time, every copy is an identical reproduction of the original, and it doesn't take up any space.

The end of Britannica in print should serve as an object lesson for other entrenched publishers and slow-moving behemoths. The world we live in today is changing rapidly, and one can either change with it or be left behind, because that change is coming whether you're onboard with it or not. The end of Britannica in print should not be marked with sadness for its passing, but rather as an affirmation of the march of human progress.