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Encyclopaedia Britannica drops print edition

In a sign of the digital times, the oldest English-language encyclopedia still in print will cease publication and exist only online

By Joab Jackson
March 13, 2012 07:08 PM ET

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Britannica's move to stop printing encyclopedias is a telling moment in this point in history, when print is being superseded by websites and network-connected applications.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

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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