The End of Print Encyclopedias?

Want to know about the the black widow spider? Or about the Gond tribe from India? Or is it the Bermuda Triangle you want to know about? The answers are now just a click away. But what does that mean to the publishers who print bulky volumes of encyclopedias?

Naom Cohen states that it may be time to “Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias” :

A series of announcements from publishers across the globe in the last few weeks suggests that the long migration to the Internet has picked up pace, and that ahead of other books, magazines and even newspapers, the classic multivolume encyclopedia is well on its way to becoming the first casualty in the end of print.

Jorge Aguilar-Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a private company based in Chicago, said that the print edition was still profitable, but that sales were just 10 percent of what they were in 1990. Customers are mostly schools and libraries.
It was only last month, however, that the publisher of Germany’s foremost multivolume encyclopedia, Brockhaus, took similar action, announcing that in April it would be putting online, free, all 300,000 of its articles, vetted by scholars over 200 years of print editions. (Brockhaus hopes to make money by selling ads on its site.) At the same time, the publishing house said it couldn’t promise that it would ever produce another print edition, something it has done regularly since the encyclopedia appeared in Leipzig in 1808.Publishers in Denmark and France, too, are rethinking the commercial viability of their encyclopedias. A one-volume French encyclopedia, Quid, lost its publisher last month, and may only survive online.
Yet, as encyclopedia publishers struggle, the Internet age has become a golden one for the newer kind of encyclopedia. An ambitious project to catalog online all known species on earth — with the even-more-ambitious title the Encyclopedia of Life — went live last month.

And then there is the behemoth Wikipedia, a project that has no board to vet articles and is created by thousands of volunteers, with more than two million articles in English and an additional five million in a babel of other languages.

So will this be the end for encyclopedias?

Mr. Aguilar-Cauz of Britannica is counting on that sort of nostalgic allure to keep at least some encyclopedias on bookshelves and not just hard drives. He envisioned the print volumes living on as a niche, luxury item, with high-quality paper and glossy photographs — similar to the way some audiophiles still swear by vinyl LPs and turntables. “What you need people to understand,” he said, “is that it is a luxury experience. You want to be able to produce a lot of joy, a paper joy.”

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  1. Anonymous December 15, 2008

    The story on the fate of the encyclopedia is interesting – as is the reference to Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia.

    Britannica never thought that an open source product like Wikipedia would seriously challenge the credibility of its brand. They were wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica's staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in serious trouble.

    It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or even to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica, when the content is free on the internet, and often much more comprehensive.

  2. Gautam December 16, 2008

    So true. We were fortunate to have met Jimmy and Sue over the weekend and they make similar points. The sum of all human knowledge, available for free. Wow!


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