Encyclopaedia Britannica halts print edition after 244 years

Wikipedia (and by extension, the internet) has proven once again how deeply the digital age is disrupting traditional business models. For nearly two and a half centuries of printing “the authoritative work” that was once boasted as the most expensive book publication ever — Encyclopaedia Britannica was the set of books that once educated the world, for a hefty price.

Well the times, they are a changing:

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print.

Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered reference books that were once sold door-to-door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, company executives said.

In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a company based in Chicago, said in an interview. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.”

In the 1950s, having the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the bookshelf was akin to a station wagon in the garage or a black-and-white Zenith in the den, a possession coveted for its usefulness and as a goalpost for an aspirational middle class. Buying a set was often a financial stretch, and many families had to pay for it in monthly installments.

But in recent years, print reference books have been almost completely overtaken by the Internet and its vast spread of resources, including specialized Web sites and the hugely popular — and free — online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Since it was started 11 years ago, Wikipedia has moved a long way toward replacing the authority of experts with the wisdom of the crowds. The site is now written and edited by tens of thousands of contributors around the world, and it has been gradually accepted as a largely accurate and comprehensive source, even by many scholars and academics.

A 1913 advertisement once boasted it cost $1.5 million dollars to produce, which translates into 2012 dollars to roughly $343 million dollars. Wikipedia’s annual operating costs in 2010-2011 (a half-year scheme which is necessarily convoluted), were just over $18 million. They’ve already blasted past that with $20 million raised so far as of January 2012.

Another couple of interesting statistics: Wikimedia Foundation claims its sites now serve more than 470 million people every month. Wikipedia, which will celebrate its 11th anniversary this year, now boasts over 20 million articles in 282 languages. The organization says more than 100,000 volunteers work on Wikipedia and sister projects. And they employ approximately 80 people full-time.

Encyclopædia Britannica on the other hand, employees roughly four thousand people as of 2008, and will probably be selling off its printing industry assets soon if they haven’t already. A Google search for them turned up an already updated Wikipedia article on the beleaguered giant in the number two spot.

They are of course trying to spin this to their favor as an adaptive measure, saying “the encyclopedia will live on—in bigger, more numerous, and more vibrant digital forms. And just as important, we the publishers are poised, in the digital era, to serve knowledge and learning in new ways that go way beyond reference works. In fact, we already do.” We all know the cold truth is that print edition of books are slowing giving way to digital copies and EB is coping with that reality in what is certainly a watershed moment in digital triumph.

My suggestion to Britannica: realize the true value of your archive of historical images. I’m sure there’s a gold mine there that has simply been hidden by age.

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