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The end of the line for print encyclopedias?

12 May 2008

Are print encyclopedias dead? It rather looks as if they might be. The mighty German encyclopedia Brockhaus is about to put all its content online. It's the paper death of a classic, as the company has been printing its encyclopedias for nearly 200 years, and anyone who's had the money has boasted a collection of the handsome volumes on their bookshelves for all the world to admire.

Brockhaus will be putting online all 300,000 of its articles, which have been vetted by scholars over 200 years, and hopes to produce revenue by selling ads on its site. In a sense the German encyclopedia company is well behind the curve in reacting to the online developments which have spelled the death of the print version. So will this new initiative work? The omens are not good but the company may feel it has little choice.

EncyclopediaFree online encyclopedia offered by eLibrary at Britannica has passed this way before. This venerable encyclopedia dates back even longer, to 1771, when the complete set with its 2,659 pages cost £12 (which is almost impossible to equate to a dollar value at the time). In 1998 the print version was abandoned and a web portal was set up to offer a free version online. At that point the competition was not the web but Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia on CD Rom for home computers.

Britannica led the pack in coming to terms with the fact that the public no longer viewed owning a multi-volume encyclopedia as a mark of middle-class status. The company fired its legendary 1,000-strong sales force, already down from 2,000 in the 1970s. But revenues generated from advertising proved disappointing, the approach seemed suicidal in business terms, and the print version was re-established three years later.

The printed Britannica set currently retails for £995 (nearly $2,000), a substantial amount even for a library (or perhaps especially for a library, given their funding shortfalls). Mostly they now take the £39.99 ($782) CD and make it available through the libraries' computers or subscribe to the online version). The company has successfully reinvented itself by using its massive database to produce many different products. The content is sold to overseas distributors, often for use in a local encylopedia or co-branded website. And print is now firmly back in the equation. The current print version comprises 32,000 pages in 32 volumes, but around 50 books are now derived from the database and this number is set to double in the next two years.

The publisher's hybrid site, Britannia Online, has a certain amount of free access and the option to subscribe to get in-depth information. Since it is online, it can all be updated weekly. The current edition has a massive 65,000 articles and 44 million words and it is still a byword for reliable information.

Perhaps this success story negates the New York Times pronouncement that 'the long migration to the Internet has picked up pace, and that ahead of other books, magazines and even newspapers, the classic multivolume encylopedia is well on its way to becoming one of the first casualties in the end of print.' Reference publishers undoubtedly do have Wikipedia to contend with and next week News Review will look at the web encyclopedia and how it has transformed the world of reference.