End of Printed Britannica

This article from the New York Times has a startling statistic: sales of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica have dropped from 120,000 in 1990 to 12,000 today. (The article says 8,000, but a later article says the whole print run of 12,000 sold out.) I knew that Wikipedia had seriously hurt the sales of encyclopedias, but I had no idea it was on the order of 90%.

When I was a kid, I had the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia. (They sold it at the supermarket, one letter at a time.) I remember vividly reading the article on algebra, where it had a big table of axioms, like “the commutative axiom,” and “the associative axiom.” I was fascinated to find out that someone had isolated a list of properties of numbers, and that these properties had names.

7 thoughts on “End of Printed Britannica

  1. Could Britanica have survived? If so then how?
    1) Early on become an expert-apedia where they invite experts to do what
    we now know Wikipedia does, only be a bit more careful on fact checking.
    Would the experts do it for free? Doubtful.

    2) Become what Wikipedia became. But is there a business model there?

    3) Have it online (I’m sure they do) and sell access to Universities.
    It would have to be the right price and also be such that to people
    at the school it is transparent- no passcodes or such needed.

    4) Have it free online but make money off of adds and donations.
    Is that enough money?

    5) (Side note) Britannica is a very old company so I can understand how
    they could not quite keep up with the times. But what about blockbuster video?
    They were a company born of the modern technical era, yet they too did not keep up with the times. They were late to go from vcr to dvd, they were late to go to the netflix-postal model, and I don’t know if they ever did the netflix-streaming model. I have less symapthy for them since they were born in an era where technology moves fast and they should have known that.

  2. They experimented with #4 for a while, but they switched away from it so I guess it didn’t work out. I think they’re headed in the direction of #3.

    I think that in general that being successful in business involves being successful at a specific kind of business, and the skills and know-how doesn’t usually translate over. Even if Blockbuster correctly anticipated the future, it doesn’t mean they knew how to execute on it.

  3. Also, I guess that not all of the 90% sales drop is attributable to Wikipedia: some have presumably been cannibalized by sales of various electronic editions of the Britannica.

  4. Ugh. I put two t’s, and one n, rather than the other way around. I make variants of this mistake all the time. My brain apparently can only remember the word has a double consonant in it, but not which letter.

  5. I doubt the online version will last much longer. I won’t shed any tears. About 10 years ago, I was reading the Britannica article on the game Go, and noted a very basic error (for those who know the game, the article referred to a group with two eyes as having “an eye”). I then spent over ten minutes searching the volumes for information on how to best contact the company to report an error, and eventually admitted defeat: I couldn’t even find a mailing address. Apparently, they didn’t want to hear it.

    On Wikipedia, when you find an error, you just go ahead and *fix* it. No hoops to jump through, no gatekeepers to placate, and no money changing hands or restrictive copyrights, either. So goodbye, Britannica; you had a nice run, the world changed, you didn’t adapt, and now you join the dinosaurs.

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