The end of the print run for Encyclopaedia Britannica

244 years after it was first published in 1786 here in Edinburgh, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has taken the decision to cease producing printed versions of the 32 volume set.

A spokesman for the encyclopaedia told The Bookseller that: “Print sales are now less than 10% of our operating profit. In 2010, we sold 8,000 print copies down from 120,000 in 1990, for example.”

This decision to stop producing the printed version does not however signal the end of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The company will instead concentrate on its digital business. Talking to CNN, Jorge Cauz stated that six years ago digital revenue overtook revenue from the printed product.

It will be interesting to see how well Encyclopaedia Britannica fares against the free juggernaut that is Wikipedia but they do have an advantage in that they are far more reliable than Wikipedia can ever hope to be. The move to digital has made the Encyclopaedia Britannica much more accessible with subscriptions. A complete print set costs £1195 though instalment plans are available at £195 per month for 6 months with a deposit of £205 whereas an annual subscription to Britannica online costs £49.95.

My main concern for the future of Encyclopaedia Britannica is brand awareness. With the print edition now consigned to history, will future generations trust the brand as much? To what extent will they even be aware of it? Part of me finds it somewhat saddening that future generations may never pick up a physical encyclopaedia. Using an encyclopaedia is an experience in itself – particularly when the size weight of the volumes is taken into account. Information somehow feels more authoritative when bound in austere hardback.

It is a sad moment in the history of print, just as the decision by the Oxford English Dictionary to cease print production was a sad moment. Both sets I had hoped one day to own. Still we must move with the times.

Long may the OED and Encyclopaedia Britannica continue in this brave new world of digital publishing.

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