For anyone under the age of 30, the concept of needing a set of encyclopedias in your home is at best archaic. I remember consulting the books as a regular part of doing homework in social studies and geography classes in particular, but also to feed curiosity for dinosaurs, biology, space, physics and more.
Well, Britannica has just announced that they will not be producing a 2012 edition and that the 2010 version will be their last print volume.
Britannica president Jorge Cauz said the move is a natural part of his company’s evolution.
“Everyone will want to call this the end of an era, and I understand that,” Cauz says. “But there’s no sad moment for us. I think outsiders are more nostalgic about the books than I am.”
In truth, Cauz says, the death knell sounded long ago. Though the name “Britannica” calls the print sets to mind, Cauz says they represent less than 1% of the company’s total sales.
“The print set is an icon. But it’s an icon that doesn’t do justice to how much we’ve changed over the years,” Cauz says.
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.
Britannica is looking to expand their online presence through a relaunch of their online encyclopedia and an app to help take advantage. Here are a few details:
That younger generation is accustomed to finding content for free via Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) or that other online encyclopedia: Wikipedia. It’s unclear whether people will be willing to pay for a household subscription, which costs $70 per year, or an app version for $1.99 per month.
“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.”
More and more, kids are hearing in classes that Wikipedia is not acceptable as a reference – and with good reason. Other online resources are also often of questionable value based on the ease of publication of materials with a particular political or other bias. Britannica sees a coming ‘return to factuality’ that they think will benefit them as people are willing to pay to have an authoritative source of research online. I have no idea if that will succeed – it is always hard to return from ‘free’ to a paid business model.
Here is a 1985 commercial that will seem all too familiar to those over 40 … trudging to the library to make it before closing time. With notoriously short hours and being the largest community resource of information, libraries were critical and lively places … but the next best thing was having a good set of Encyclopedia Britannica at home!