Blown to Bits – Britannica no longer in Print

Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was first published in Scotland in 1768 will no longer be in print. The paid, online version will continue, as will the iPad and iPhone apps. The encyclopedia became a Chicago-based U.S. company in 1902 and is presently owned by Swiss financier Jacob Safra. For generations of adults, the Encyclopaedia Britannica part of growing up. It was sold door-to-door for most of the twentieth century to families on the promise of a brighter future, lit by the compendium of knowledge necessary for the modern age.

In their pioneering work on disintermediation, Boston Consulting Group members Philip Evans and Thomas S. Wurster highlighted the “near-demise” of Encyclopaedia Britannica as an example of “the new economics of information will precipitate changes in the structure of entire industries and in the way companies compete.” The Harvard Business Review article in 1997 received a 1997 McKinsey Award and their 1999 book, Blown to Bits, captured the transformation of media at its economic core, anticipating the new business models that supported, Apple and Google.

Britannica was not caught entire flat-footed by the information age, but as noted in works on disruptive innovation, being a market leader sometimes makes it difficult to respond. Britannica created its first digital collection in 1981. Although it had its own multimedia CD by 1989, its sales were eclipsed by Microsoft Encarta when it launch in 1993. (Ironically, Microsoft had initial sought to work with Britannica but was rebuffed.) Microsoft essentially gave Encarta away for free to help justify the price of the personal computer, making the PC and disk close in price to the cost of just the home set of Britannica. The strategy work, helping to fuel the growth of the PC industry.

In 2001, along came Wikipedia, a crowd-sourced free collaborative encyclopedia which has come to exemplify the collaborative movement for an always-networked age. Britannica decided that it could not compete with the free business model. Microsoft ended the CD run of Encarta in 2009.

The Britannica sales strategy could never justify pricing and marketing the CD properly because it created too much damage to the print product. Although the accuracy comparisons continue between Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica, studies tend to find them comparable or Britannica to have only slightly fewer errors.

“At Encyclopaedia Britannica we believe that the announcement that we will no longer print the 32-volume encyclopedia is of great significance, not for what it says about our past, but for what it projects about our vibrant present and future as a digital provider of general knowledge and instructional services,” posted Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

By the end, the print edition accounted for less than one percent of revenue. Subscriptions represent 15 percent, which academic sales represent the rest. The books available were actually printed in 2010. 4,000 copies of the 32-volume set remain available.

The end to this chapter of Britannica serves as an important marker to this chapter in the history of the Information Age.