Digital, generational shift

Last week marked a generational milestone: Encyclopedia Britannica announced it would no longer be printing encyclopedias after 244 years. The company said it would focus on its digital product but will keep selling the 32-volume set until its current stock of 4,000 sets runs out.

Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. president Jorge Cauz told Reuters, “The print edition became more difficult to maintain and wasn’t the best physical element to deliver the quality of our database and the quality of our editorial.”

END OF PRINT. Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer produce printed editions of its encyclopedia. (Creative commons photo by Miyagisan in Flickr)
END OF PRINT. Encyclopedia Britannica will no longer produce printed editions of its encyclopedia. (Creative commons photo by Miyagisan in Flickr)

Encyclopedia Britannica has a storied digital past.

In the mid-1970s, the company uploaded text and illustrations of the encyclopedia’s 15th edition to a computerized publishing system to simplify annual revisions. In 1981, Britannica published the first digital encyclopedia with its text-only version for LexisNexis users.

In 1989, Britannica introduced an encyclopedia on a CD-ROM and in 1994, it set up Britannica Online, the first encyclopedia on the Internet.

Print-digital revenue share

The company reached a digital tipping point in 2006 when, for the first time, digital products accounted for more than half of the company’s revenues. Since then, more and more of the company’s profits came from digital – with the company releasing various products for phones and tablets.

Britannica’s announcement came on the heels of the release of a survey of students on tablet use. The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive for Pearson Foundation, showed that more and more US college students now own tablets and they see these as “valuable for educational purposes as they are for personal entertainment.”

The survey showed that 70 percent of US college students have read digital textbooks compared to 62 percent a year ago.

The poll showed that 90 percent of college students who own tablets say these devices are valuable for educational purposes with 66 percent saying these help students study more efficiently and 64 percent saying these help students perform better in class.

The survey said that 57 percent of college students prefer reading e-books for fun and 58 percent prefer digital formats for class. The number is a reversal of last year’s figures when more students preferred print over digital.

The digital shift in reading is upon us. It has been upon us since last year, with Amazon announcing last May that digital books had surpassed printed titles for the first time.

The shift has profound and deep implications that go beyond a change in medium. It’s not just a matter of digitizing content and shoe-horning it into devices. That’s a formula for disaster. The shift calls for a rethink of content production, distribution and monetization.

Future of publishing

Neil Gaiman says traditional publishing will likely last only a decade, “But that isn’t going to mean fewer books. There’ll be a lot more books – people will just find them differently,” he said in The Guardian.

He said the post-Napster and post-iTunes music industry shows a peek at the future of publishing. “There are fewer rock stars traveling the world in their private jets than there were in the old days, but there’s a lot more good music.”

In this new media landscape, the rules have changed. Suddenly, smaller companies and teams now have the ability to compete with monoliths. Amateurs and volunteers now have the ability to build an audience that rivals that of mainstream media and websites. Today, our biggest repository of knowledge is the volunteer-written Wikipedia.

But while the new landscape may be hazy, this much is clear: people are reading more, a lot more. And this demand for content opens opportunities for producers. Now is indeed the best time to be a writer or editor.