Remember printed sets of encyclopedias? Thick, heavy books enlightening us about everything from aardvarks to zoology while taking up an entire bookshelf or two.
Encyclopaedia Britannica has morphed considerably over time, and President Jorge Cauz detailed much of its fascinating history in this month’s HBR IdeaCast podcast. The company has adapted to survive technological disruption and made headlines last year when they stopped producing the 244-year-old print encyclopedias altogether. As Cauz explains, that decision was relatively straightforward with book sales peaking in 1990 and 2012 print sales falling to just 25% of that 1990 volume. Cauz explains Britannica’s transformation to digital media and then to becoming a “learning business” – launching products like “Britannica School” where content and supplemental materials are linked to curriculum.
In 2001 Wikipedia was born, and as it enters its adolescence this “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” has 24 million articles, over 4.1 million in English, and editions in 285 languages. If fundraising abilities are a measure of popularity, Wikipedia’s is growing. Sue Gardner, executive director of WikiMedia Foundation (of which Wikipedia is a part), told Marketplace this year that they raised $2.7 million dollars a day during one campaign, up from $430,000 a day the year before. Ironically, you can create your own printed book from Wikipedia content with PediaPress.
As consumers of facts we have these two main online encyclopedias: Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica online, each offering a distinct value proposition. And there might be some market confusion between them. I searched online to see if a set of printed Britannica encyclopedias is still available. On Amazon, of course, one can buy a 2010 set for $5,000. As either an example of facetiousness or legitimate market confusion, one customer review states: “I was really excited to have an offline version of Wikipedia, and I thought $5000 was a little steep compared to free. But you know, sometimes my phone doesn't have a good 4G connection and I need a backup.”
Looking forward, Britannica’s President gives us a clue about where he thinks the market will go next: “And we don't like traditional educational companies, by the way. We don't like, necessarily, the big three curriculum players. I think that that's where the disruption is going to happen next. We'll like some of the more nimbler learning solutions that are appearing out there.”