Start Writing the Eulogies for Print Encyclopedias…NY Times

A piece in Sunday’s New York Times

hints that the veritable leather-bound sets of encyclopedias that lined the bookshelves of many families (and libraries) for generations may be going the way of the Viewmaster and the Fuller Brush Man. One statistic that brings the trend home is that sales of Encyclopedia Britannica, the Rolls Royce of encyclopedias, have dropped by 90% since 1990, and their 2000 strong sales force is no more. (Apparently, the demand for door-to-door salesmen approaches zero when your only customers are schools and libraries. However, despite being a shell of its former size, company is still profitable. )

Britannica is not the only one forced to adapt to the migration to the online world. The Encyclopedia Americana has also hinted that there will not be a print edition in 2009. Several European publishers, including Brockhause, have moved their contents entirely online, for free (albeit ad-supported). The NYT piece goes on to trace the development of the various web-based offerings, including of course, Wikipedia (consistently in the top ten most visited sites) as well as the more recent Encyclopedia of Life, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, among others.

This article quotes a number of nostalgic encyclopedia users who are lamenting the loss of a set of bound books that you can thumb through. It seems to me that the void that some fear is being created by the online world can be filled to some degree by e-book readers such as the Kindle. Sure, it has already includes easy access to Wikipedia, but look at the value proposition if you’re an encyclopedia publisher: if you’re seeking new channels for your high-valued content, and are already able to charge a subscription for access it online, making it available via a wireless device like the Kindle could present an incremental revenue stream.

The Kindle also can act as a bridge for those tactile readers who prefer to hold their reference books in their hands. The article offers an ideal metaphor in the following paragraph, which quotes Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor and chairman of the Encyclopedia of Life project:

Asked about his own experience with encyclopedias, Professor Wilson said, “I grew up in Alabama — we didn’t have things like the Encyclopaedia Britannica in our home.” What he did have were field guides. “All the field guides — for snakes, butterflies, turtles. Back in the 40s, I had my butterfly nets, and I was right up to date through my guides,” Professor Wilson said.

He added: “There are nerds that say we will have something the size of a field guide, and punch in something. Maybe I am hopelessly old fashioned, but a kid with a knapsack, and a Boy Scout or Girl Scout manual, printed, a field guide on snakes or butterflies, printed, is the best combination in the world.”

It’s not a huge leap to imagine the Kindle as a portable “field guide to the world”. New species could be incorporated within days of discovery.



Chicken/Egg dilemma: Textbook publishers rejected by the digital world?

In an article appearing in the March 10 issue of  the Michigan State U student paper, the author quotes a couple of publishing industry executives with diverging observations on the future of e-textbooks on college campuses:

Some of the weight of textbooks and course packets could be lifted off the backs of students if some textbook publishers have their way. Electronic or digital books, known as eBooks, could eradicate the need for students to carry around textbooks and, in turn, put texts into a slim device or laptop computer. Tom Stanton, director of communications for McGraw-Hill Education, said his company offers more than 1,000 digital textbooks — most at half the cost of traditional print counterparts. “Today’s eBooks offer a variety of features that enhance the learning experience,” he said. “For example, many of our eBooks are fully interactive, with audio, video, full search and note-taking capabilities.” Despite the extra features of digital books, they are not being adopted everywhere. Evan Schnittman, vice president of business development for Oxford University Press, said the textbook world has tried to reach out to the digital age, but has been rejected. The resistance is partially attributed to professors choosing books, Schnittman said, but it could be because of publishers trying to pass off eBooks on a group without a standard eBook reader.  “Textbooks have been a real challenge as an industry,” Schnittman said. “You would think that the most wired group in the world (students), would be the first to adapt (to eBooks).”   He said e-readers available now aren’t as multifunctional as publishers would like. “There’s no interactivity,” Schnittman said. “If you highlight a word, you can’t get a definition or get a video explaining the subject.”

It seems from these comments that the lack of a standard reader provides the publishers with a convenient explanation justifying their reluctance to migrate to a digital world. Why should they do anything to hasten the arrival of a day when their monopolistic pricing practices are threatened by the open-source community? (or at least the world of digital content, which generally carries lower margins than hard copies.) One is reminded of the effect the development of the standard gauge in the railroad industry had on interstate commerce back in the middle of the 19th century (which is when the current publishing industry got its start). Prior to a common railroad gauge being adopted by the dozens of different railway companies around the country, goods could only be moved a short distance before they needed to be transferred to a different size freight car. Once the standard gauge was adopted, a single freight car could be transported across the continent without its contents having to be transferred, thus bringing shipping costs down.  The development of the standard gauge railroad is recognized as one of the catalysts underlying the USA’s rise to the world’s largest economy by the end of the 19th century.

Maybe Amazon should be giving Kindles away to every high school and college student for the next five years…(or at least do volume license deals with every college in the nation). Why let the publishers dictate, (or inhibit) the standard? Let the market speak!