There will be no more print editions of Encyclopedia Britannica. It will continue to be updated but its future is as software and online. Has Wikipedia finally killed the desire to own bound paper books? Has knowledge finally become instant and free?
First published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, Scotland in three volumes, Britannica has gone through 15 editions and grown to 32 volumes. Its sales reached a peak level in 1990 when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States, where it has been published since the early C20th. Then sales fell to 40,000 in 1996 and to date only 8,000 sets of the 2010, and now final, edition have been sold with 4,000 sets remaining.
Its publishers are very positive about the move away from the bookshelf to become a digital-only publication.
According to the current president of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc, Jorge Cauz
“It’s a rite of passage in this new era. Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”
As editor-in-chief points out in the video above, the great advantage of the online edition is that revisions can be continuously incorporated to keep it up to date.
Already about 85 percent of revenue comes from selling curriculum products in subjects like math, science and the English language; 15 percent comes from subscriptions to the Web site, with about half a million households pay a $70 annual fee for the online subscription, which includes access to the full database of articles, videos, original documents and to the company’s mobile applications.
Britannica clearly has some online rivals - Wikipedia for example but its reputation is a saleable commodity. In a world were publishers have a lot to learn about moving print assets to the web watching what happens to Britannica is a lesson not to miss.
Finally even if they had some problems selling the print edition before announcing its demise my guess is that they will have no problem selling the remaining stock as collectors make sure that they have the last edition to appreciate - more than one sense of the word. I also wouldn't be surprised to see special collectors editions in the near future just to mop up some of the excess demand.