After 244 years of doing business, Encyclopedia Britannica has stopped printing encyclopedias. The company will continue to focus on its digital encyclopedia and education tools which made up most of Britannica’s revenues. Seems like time has finally caught up with printed books as Wikipedia has become the go-to source for information.
Britannica usually prints a new set books every two years, but 2010′s 32-volume set will be its last. According to Britannica president Jorge Cauz, the printed set only represent less than 1% of the company’s total sales. I’m surprised that it has taken them this long to stop printing.
The online version of the encyclopedia, which was first published in 1994, represents only 15% of Britannica’s revenue. The other 85% is sales of education products: online learning tools, curriculum products and more.
That’s not surprising to Michael Norris, a senior trade books analyst at Simba Information, who says reference books have taken the worst hit with the rise of digital.
“People still buy, read and love print books. But the relationship they have with a novel is very different than what they have with a piece of information they need,” Norris says.
“This has been the reality of reference texts for years now,” Cauz says. “Updating dozens of books every two years now seems so pedestrian. The younger generation consumes data differently now, and we want to be there.”
“Google’s algorithm doesn’t know what’s fact or what’s fiction,” Cauz concedes. “So Wikipedia is often the No. 1 or No. 2 result on search. But I’d bet a lot of money that most people would rather use Britannica than Wikipedia.”
Britannica will start offering more free content to entice potential subscribers. But Cauz doesn’t expect Britannica to replace or even overtake Wikipedia. He sees the situation as “different senses of responsibility.”
He adds: “Wikipedia is a wonderful technology for collecting everything from great insights to lies and innuendos. It’s not all bad or all good, just uneven. It’s the murmur of society, a million voices rather than a single informed one.”
As a result, Cauz says, consumers are craving accuracy and are willing to pay for it.
“We have an important role to play,” Cauz says. “I think Wikipedia sees us as a relic of an old era. But facts always matter, no matter what form they take. Our mission hasn’t changed, just the method.”
Britannica is relaunching its website in three weeks.