Friday, April 18, 2008

Rule Britannica

The New York Times recently declared that print encyclopedias are on their way out. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Sales of the most illustrious encyclopedia peaked in 1990 and then dropped over the next six years by 10 percent a year. Yes, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that bulky 32-volume knowledge fest that took up serious shelf space in any library, is on its way out. Personally, I find it amazing that they have been producing a print edition for the last decade. What business can sustain a 10 percent drop in sales year on year? No business I’ve been involved with! Of course Britannica has tried all the obvious fixes. Once they were at only 40 percent of their original sales, they went online. That makes sense. Then they dropped their iconic door-to-door salesmen (at one stage in the 1970s, there were over 2,000 of them!). Then they started slimming down the world’s knowledge. Today the print edition is only 10 percent of what it was in 1990. So the volumes that helped thousands of kids reach high cupboards, and yes, open their minds, looks like it will soon become a phenomenon of the screen alone. I don’t have any insight into how successful this will be when confronted with the march of Wikipedia, but I do have some advice to give them better odds in this brave new screen world. Embrace sisomo.

So far, a reader’s advantages from the screen version are more images and standard features like a decent search. Not good enough. To survive and thrive they need to become Irresistible. To engage seekers after knowledge with interactivity, movies, animation and sound. With sisomo they might be able to climb back to the top of the encyclopedia heap.

2 comments:

Tobias Gaertner said...

1768 until ? for the Encyclopedia Britannica...
The German "Brockhaus" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brockhaus_Enzyklopädie) which was first published in 1805 has already called it quits and will no longer be published in print (so they said Feb. 11th 2008) and is moving to online. They admit that they have been beaten by Wikipedia.
I'm not shure if I should feel great about this victory of digital over paper. Not because encyclopedias where the first books (apart from the bible) to be published and every "cool" professor of the 15th to the 18th century wanted or did publish an encyclopedia. Not because it was an institution and collection of the world's knowledge and of "what is correct" (if you were not shure - you looked it up in the Brockhaus). Not because it looks cool to have it on your bookshelf - although that won't impress too many people these days.
It's partly because (I agree with Kevin) because it helped to get to the higher shelves (not only in a physical way...) when you are younger. But even more: I'm not really that comfortable to completly trust a "community" to be responsible for an unbiased aggrigation of the worlds knowledge in all its details. Of course - for subjects that are popular you can be shure that we'll have enough people to keep an eye on Wikipedia that George W. Bush won't turn into a saint in 10 years time in his article on Wikipedia. But there are many subjects where there will be too few people to care if the information given is correct....and if the internet is down, we'll be looking back to those "old-age" things like books that "run" without a DSL connection and electricity...but I'm getting sentimental... Bye!

Susan Plunkett said...

tobias said:

I'm not really that comfortable to completly trust a "community" to be responsible for an unbiased aggrigation of the worlds knowledge in all its details. ...But there are many subjects where there will be too few people to care if the information given is correct..
--unquote--

I totally agree. I am amazed at the number of people I encounter who quote wiki as if it is THE definitive source, forgetting (or not knowing) that information in wiki is as good as the people who submit or edit.

I would advise everyone who has a full set of encyclopedias (I wish!) to hold on to them as I can bet they will become sought after collectibles in a couple of decades.