The Encyclopaedia Britannica will stop publishing its 32-volume print edition after 244 years and instead focus on its digital efforts, a watershed moment that highlights the changing fortunes of content producers in the internet era.
First published in Edinburgh in 1786, more than 7m sets of the Encyclopaedia Britannica were printed, becoming cultural touchstones as knowledge was democratised through the 19th and 20th centuries.
"I am a bit heartbroken," said AJ Jacobs, who read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica for his book, The Know-It-All. "There was something so wonderfully concrete about the print version, and I loved the idea that all the world's knowledge could be contained in those pages."
Explorer Ernest Shackleton took some volumes on his doomed expedition to Antarctica, and is said to have burned them page by page to keep warm. "You can't do that with the internet," said Mr Jacobs.
Jorge Cauz, president of the Encyclopaedia Britannica company, said ceasing publication of the print volumes was a necessary step in company's evolution. "We saw this coming for some time," he said. "This isn't about defending ourselves from Wikipedia, but we need to diversify and digitise."
The emergence of the web decimated sales of Britannica. From a peak of 120,000 sets sold in 1990, sales fell sharply, with just 8,500 sets of the 2010 edition shipped.
Yet in staking the encyclopedia's fortunes on the web, Mr Cauz will be going head to head with Wikipedia, the free user-generated online encyclopedia that has largely displaced Britannica as the de facto source of knowledge for information both essential and arcane. Wikipedia has more than 3.7m articles, compared with the Britannica's 100,000 articles.
Mr Cauz said Britannica articles are vetted by professional editors, making it more reliable than Wikipedia. Even that, however, does not make it foolproof, he acknowledged. "We're not going to be 100 per cent accurate all of the time," he said. Britannica will also face an uphill task in making its content easy to find online. Mr Cauz said he had good relations with Google and Bing, a Microsoft search engine, but that improving search ranking remained a challenge. "Their algorithms don't know fact from fiction and readable content from nonreadable content," said Mr Cauz. "We could be printing money if we were as featured as Wikipedia."
Online access to Britannica will be available to consumers for $70 a year, to institutions on a per-seat basis, and some content will soon be free for all users.
Encyclopaedia Britannica the company has largely moved away from the encyclopedia. Educational software now accounts for 85 per cent of revenues, while 15 per cent comes from print and online sales of encyclopedia content. Mr Cauz said the private company, though smaller than it once was, has been profitable for the last 8 years. "We've traded print dollars for digital pennies," Mr Cauz said.
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