Encyclopedia Britannica Ceases Print Edition After 244 Years

By on March 16th, 2012

The Encyclopedia Britannica made headlines earlier this week when it announced that it was “stopping the presses” and ceasing publication of its print edition after a strong 244-year run. From a business standpoint, one can understand why this inevitably needed to happen: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. has sold just 8,000 sets of its latest 32-volume, $1,395 print edition released in 2010, with another 4,000 sitting in a warehouse waiting to be ordered. When the last set is shipped, that will be that. Sales of Britannica’s print edition peaked around 1990 at 120,000 sets, with significant decreases in volume through the 1990′s and into the 2000′s. For the company itself, the print edition represented only a small portion of revenue, with the majority derived from selling curriculum products to schools, as well as online subscriptions and other digital versions of its content.

In my view, this move is not revolutionary, but it is certainly evolutionary. It serves as a reflection point on multiple fronts, including the transformation occurring in the publishing industry and in education; it also highlights the true impact that the Internet and digital media continue to have in the way we learn, work, and play.

Is the sunsetting of Encyclopedia Britannica’s printed set just another death knell for the demise of the printed book or other printed publications? No… BUT… it does serve as a reminder that it is imperative for publishers to have a digital media strategy. Luckily for Encyclopedia Britannica, the company has been working to publish its vast repository of the world’s facts and figures to digital channels since the 1980′s. It released the first CD-ROM (remember those?) of Britannica in 1989. It put its collection online in 1994, which was seven years before Jimmy Wales launched Wikipedia in 2001.

Encyclopedia Britannica was actually ahead of its time in its digital publishing efforts, and ensured that it built up a strong digital business before deciding to end its print edition. The company reports having 500,000 subscribers to its $69.95/year premium Britannica Online service, which users can access via the Web and also through its iPad application. Think about that: what was once a 129-pound set of books now fits on a device of just over 1 pound… and it’s searchable, browsable, interactive, and constantly updated.

Some are of the opinion that more searchable and hyperlinked content, while efficient, takes away some of the serendipitous nature of perusing through a printed encyclopedia or other printed publications. Apparently those people have never gone on a Wikipedia bender, letting the hours melt away while clicking through dozens (or hundreds) of interconnected articles. Of course, there is definitely something about looking through a tome like Encyclopedia Britannica that is hard to replicate in the digital world, but the reality is that in today’s world, efficiency is paramount. Furthermore, I believe that information is power, and limiting that type of high-quality, trusted reference information to the confines of a fixed-length format is, in the end, inhibitive.

Another thing this news made me really reflect on is the impact of technology on education. While print is going to continue to play an important role in education well into the future, digital media can be used in conjunction or even on its own to more effectively help students learn new concepts and expand their knowledge. A lighthouse example of how digital media can be used as an effective teaching tool is Khan Academy, whose mission is “to provide a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.” Now that is revolutionary.

Through short, instructive video lessons often taught by the site’s founder, Sal Khan, students can work their way from the basics of a particular subject all the way through to the most complex applications. While the information is freely available online, the not-for-profit is piloting programs in 23 schools with its math curriculum, where the video lessons are their primary instructor and teachers are used in more of a support role. Students’ progress is tied back to analytics that help pinpoint where they are having problems and in what subject. Sal Khan and his team may have cracked the code for how to effectively use the Web and digital media to enhance learning.

In the 60 Minutes piece on Khan Academy from this past weekend, Sal Khan was asked how he approaches learning about a topic he is going to create a video for. His answer? Textbooks. “If I’m doing something that I haven’t visited for a long time, you know, since high school I’ll go buy five textbooks in it. And I’ll try to read every textbook,” says Khan. He, of course, also uses the Internet. Clearly there is still value in trustworthy, authoritative reference information, and print is a symbol of that trust. Digital media, however, is becoming just as trustworthy, and its use along with other technology can help optimize the learning experience like never before.

What do you think? Are you lamenting the loss of Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition or is it inconsequential?

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5 Responses to “Encyclopedia Britannica Ceases Print Edition After 244 Years”

  1. Bruce Watermann Says:

    NIce article Bryan! While I love printed books as much as just about anyone some content is just made to be digital. The EB is a great example of that. And now the existing printed copies around the world can be treasured and read if folks want to at their local public library or in the many hand-me-down editions in millions of homes around the world. Very happy that EB has seen the future coming for a while, kept their old biz model going as long as they could, and recognized when it was time to get out.

  2. Bryan Yeager Says:

    Thanks, Bruce. I totally agree. The fact that EB announced the end of its print edition makes the most recent release that much more sought-after due to its “limited edition” caché. I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually helps them sell the rest of their stock fairly quickly. These books definitely still play an important role and will live on in libraries and homes for centuries to come.

  3. Maura Says:

    Great article! I think that EB is taking a big, but important step. They were extremely smart in working on their digital strategy long before they stopped publishing. I think it’s important for every printing/publishing company to have a digital strategy. I’m not sure print will ever really die but I do think we all need to ahead of the curve with a technology strategy!

  4. Pat Benhmida Says:

    While I hadn’t realy given it much thought. I was surprised to hear that they ceased printing their books at this time. I thought they must have done it years ago. It’s certainly not inconsequential. It’s kind of momentous. I love your statement about print being a symbol of trust. I think about it that way also.
    great article.

  5. Evans Graphics Says:

    I’m not surprised really. I suspect that even 20 years ago most Encyclopedia Britannica editions were bought and put on the shelf to look nice. They weren’t exactly easy to read.

    Wherever I go now I see more people than ever reading electronically on handsets and tablets. This isn’t about education, it’s about delivery. In the same way that we’re drinking more milk than ever but you don’t see many milkmen anymore.