Encyclopedia Britannica Closes Book on Print Edition
March 15, 2012

Encyclopedia Britannica Closes Book on Print Edition

Peter Suciu for RedOrbit.com

Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that it will no longer publish its flagship, 32-volume printed edition. Updated regularly and only available every other year, the printed version sold for $1400.

On Tuesday the Chicago based publisher announced that it would instead focus on selling its established reference works to subscribers through its websites, as well as apps for tablets and smartphones.

“This is not a sad day at Britannica. We are a fully digital company,” Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica told the Wall Street Journal.

Cauz also told Reuters: “The print edition became more difficult to maintain and wasn't the best physical element to deliver the quality of our database and the quality of our editorial.”

That printed edition has had a long and good run, beginning in 1768 when Scottish engraver Andrew Bell and printer Colin Macfarquhar created a three cross-reference volume edition.

Over the years the reference encyclopedia, arguably one of the most established brands in the market, grew in size and stature. Over the years contributors have included Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Henry Ford.

Sales peaked in 1990 when it sold 120,000 printed sets, but as the Internet Age arrived sales tapered off. Just 12,000 sets were printed in 2010, with 3,500 left unsold. However, rather than be left behind, the publisher adapted and expanded into the world of digital media.

In fact, in some ways Encyclopedia Britannica has been at the forefront of technology, and first released a computerized version in 1981 for LexisNexis subscribers and first produced an Internet edition in 1994.

Today the shift online makes business sense. While the 32-volume printed edition costs $1400, an online subscription is around $70 a year, with apps ranging from $1.99 and $4.99 per month. Currently about half a million households subscribe for full access to Encyclopedia Britannica, while more than 100 million people have access to the encyclopedia´s digital version through schools, libraries and colleges.

Cauz told Reuters that the company felt the full impact of technology 20 years and has been adapting to it. While it has been difficult at times he said, many trade publishers have been unable to survive, yet Britannica is still here.

But so is competition, notably from Google and Wikipedia.

In fact, Wikipedia — the open source encyclopedia — appears as the number one result on Google for 56 percent of searches according to a 2012 study by UK-based Intelligent Positioning Ltd. Adding to this is the fact that Wikipedia actually has a larger database than Encyclopedia Britannica.

And recently Encyclopedia Britannica has taken a page from Wikipedia´s playbook, and now allows readers to make revisions to the encyclopedia articles. These are published by the editors after a review process.

Cauz also has offered hope for those who still like the feel of the printed word on paper beneath their fingers that printed books may not completely vanish from the market. But for those wanting to page through the Encyclopedia Britannica time is running out. The company will continue to sell the print editions until the current stock of 4000 sets run out.

And this could just be a sign of the changing times.

“In the future books are not going to be so permanent,” tech industry analyst Jeff Kagan told RedOrbit. “We are just seeing this with the encyclopedias now. But in the future books are going to be upgradable and updatable.”