The world’s best-known encyclopedia announced today that it is producing no more print editions. After 244 years, Encyclopaedia Britannica is going completely digital. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds.
The books were first published in Edinburgh, Scotland, before the United States existed. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Americans began to buy the books, and the door-to-door technique was perfected about fifty years later. The company’s first digital reference was created via LexisNexis in 1981. CD-ROMs came out in 1989 and Britannica went to the Web in 1994.
During the last twenty years, as people increasingly turned to the Internet with their questions, the company saw sales of the print edition dwindle, and the product struggled to balance Web traffic and needs for subscription revenue. The final decision to put it all online makes sense, of course. It’s costly and painstaking to produce a new edition of an enormous print product, but a database is boundless and can be continually updated and corrected at a relatively small cost to the publisher. Anyone who has published independently can attest to the frustration of finding an error in the print edition. A mistake in an e-book is simple to correct; the change can be accomplished in a matter of an hour.
The company will concentrate on digital publishing and educational products, and the brand may become the equivalent of Wikipedia with fact-checking: Britannica Online allows readers to revise its entries “which are then published after editorial review and revision if necessary.”
Another cultural icon bites the dust.