Encyclopaedia Britannica Kills Paper Product, Looks To Online Editions

After 244 years of publishing what many worldwide viewed as the definitive encyclopedia of the world, Encyclopaedia Britannica has announced it will cease publishing a paper series. To put that in perspective, this is a research initiative that predates lolcats, door knobs, germ theory and at least some of leftovers moldering in your fridge. Once the current inventory of sets is exhausted, there will be no more.

It's all the Internet's fault. According to Wikipedia, the EB has remained roughly the same size for the past 70 years, consisting of 40 million words on a half-million different topics. The current 15th edition, published in 2010, consists of 32 volumes -- a two-volume index, a 12 volume Micropaedia, and a 17 volume Propaedia.

Commercials like this drove huge sales in the 1990s

Half a million topics is a huge amount of information, but it's dwarfed by the size of Wikipedia. The trend line in the graph below shows the total number of articles, while the red jagged line is the number of new articles per day. As of yesterday, the total number of Wikipedia articles stood at 3,895,465. Comparing articles to topics isn't terribly accurate -- it makes no allowances for article length or quality -- but the costs of running and operating Wikipedia are minimal when compared to the operating expenses of the EB -- or the ten years it takes to create a new edition.

The profound difference in update speeds and the difficulty of creating a new edition can ironically be seen in the EB's own announcement of its dead-tree demise. As of Wednesday, March 14, the Wikipedia article contains a notice that the 2010 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica will be the last printed volume. Even if the EB board wanted to include such data in its own 2010 series, it would take months before a new copy was available.

Earlier this decade, there was tremendous controversy over whether or not the EB was more or less accurate than Wikipedia and whether the latter's entries could be trusted as reliable given that they can be authored by anyone. The debate eventually led to the foundation of the now-moribund Citizendium and caught the attention of the science journal Nature. Nature's comparison found factual errors and flaws on both sides with an average of 2.92 errors per article for the EB and 3.86 for Wikipedia. EB was highly critical of this endeavor and called on the journal to retract its findings (Nature declined to do so).

The savings associated with the move are expected to be significant; encyclopedia sales currently make up less than 1% of the Encyclopaedia's revenue. At the current price of $1395 for a full set, it's not hard to see why -- such a price tag might be justified given that it takes nearly ten years to produce a new edition, but it's scarcely competitive with the modern age.

Comments from Jorge Cauz, the President of the EB company, leave us wondering if he grasps the true nature of what he's fighting against. Asked how he will compete with Wikipedia's free-access policy (the EB normally costs $70 a year, the company claims a half-million subscribers), Cauz answered "“We have very different value propositions." Mr. Cauz said. “Britannica is going to be smaller. We cannot deal with every single cartoon character, we cannot deal with every love life of every celebrity. But we need to have an alternative where facts really matter. Britannica won’t be able to be as large, but it will always be factually correct.”

A quick perusal of the top Wikipedia articles shows plenty of celebrity requests and trivial searches -- but there's quite a bit of serious access amongst the dross. Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Google, holidays, Android, Salvia, Julian Assange, and Wikileaks are all in the top 100. The major question facing the Encyclopaedia Britannica is whether it can establish itself in the mass market as a place you visit to search for serious things when Wikipedia is happy to answer your questions about Nicki Minaj and the meaning of life.

If you're curious about the EB, the company is offering a free seven-day trial, though users should be wary -- it's a standard "Free for seven days and then we charge you" contract.