It's not your dad's Encyclopedia

CD-ROMs and the Internet may have redefined our favorite reference, but books won't disappear

April 02, 2001|By Monty Phan | Monty Phan,NEWSDAY

You don't have to go far to find documentation on the decline of the printed encyclopedia. All you need is an Internet connection.

And therein lies the problem.

As the Net's popularity has risen, the public's interest in shelling out thousands of dollars for dozens of leather-bound reference books has dropped. But don't take our word for it: Check out the "Electronic encyclopaedias" entry at Britannica.com:

"By the 1980s and '90s," the entry says, "the phenomenal growth of telecommunications networks and personal computer systems presented a new possibility to the publishing industry - the delivery of encyclopaedic databases through a medium other than the printed page ...

"As computer technology continues to develop and is used with greater sophistication, there exists the further possibility that the electronic encyclopaedia will become less a version of the print set than a product in its own right, presenting the database in a manner best suited to exploit the advantages of the electronic medium."

Nowhere is that more apparent than with Britannica itself: It no longer sells printed encyclopedias.

Now let's go to the "encyclopedia" entry on Microsoft's Encarta.com, the online version of its Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia. By the late 1990s, according to this article, "online publication freed readers from having to install the products from CD-ROMs or DVDs," allowing "editors to update their products much more frequently than they could when publishing on paper or on electronic disc."

See, not even electronic encyclopedias were immune from the ubiquity of the Internet. So how were print versions supposed to survive? Maybe they just won't, analysts suggest.

"As soon as reference books are published, they're obsolete," explained Dan O'Brien, a senior analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. "They age very rapidly. The Web is a better way to publish. But whether there's a business model, even there is something else."

O'Brien said the decline of the print encyclopedia began when Microsoft started including electronic versions for free on new PCs. Its Encarta encyclopedia CD-ROM was released in January 1993.

In 1994, Chicago-based Britannica struck back, becoming the first company to issue an online version of its then-5-year-old CD-ROM encyclopedia, making it available mainly to schools and libraries.

But that apparently wasn't good enough for the growing numbers of computer-literate students who conducted their online research Web site by Web site. As a result, an updated online encyclopedia, Britannica.com, debuted in October 1999, even though it was unclear how the company would make money off the product in a medium that has made profitability difficult.

One solution has been syndication, providing specific information to individual communities on a fee basis. Britannica.com last year began syndicating content to such sites as Olympics.com (the official site of the Sydney games), ABCNews.com and Nick.com, the site for the Nickelodeon kids network.

Meanwhile, Chicago-based World Book Inc., which has put out a print edition of its encyclopedia since 1917, has taken a different approach for its online version, charging a subscription rate of about $50 per year or $10 per month for access.

But the company also made changes in terms of its focus, choosing to go after the school and library market instead of individuals, said Michael Ross, World Book's executive vice president.

Though the company's print encyclopedia sales are down from 10 years ago, sales to schools and libraries have increased in the past five years, he said. And the company's subscription-based Web site, www.worldbookonline.com, has doubled in revenue each year since debuting in October 1998, although the number of individuals who subscribe is low, "in the thousands, not tens of thousands," Ross said.

The true story of the encyclopedia of the 1990s is not "that the product is dead," Ross argues. "The story is that these companies need to make their product available across multiple platforms, including print, online and CD-ROM.

"We're not going to sell 400,000 to 500,000 (print sets) ever again," he said. "But we're selling more than 100,000."

Microsoft's Encarta.com, meanwhile, has kept its site free, depending on sales of its CD-ROM to computer makers as a source of profit. The main Encarta site offers about 15 million words, with much of the same information contained on the CD-ROM. Meanwhile, a 50-million word "deluxe" site offering subject updates is available for free to those who buy the CD-ROM on their own.

Recognizing that students are the products' biggest users, Encarta has tailored the CD-ROM and Web site toward ages 10 to 18, said Craig Bartholomew, general manager of the Encarta brands. When charting Encarta CD-ROMs, the company has seen sales take off around the time the first school paper is due, often in October.

In addition, the Web site, which last year had 50 million different users, sees its fewest visits during summer.

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