Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Threshold Moment for Books

It’s not a big surprise but it’s big news: Encyclopaedia Britannica is no longer updating its print edition.

Britannica was the most authoritative encyclopedia a decade ago, but that’s not saying much after the whole industry has been eclipsed by Wikipedia. In the last two years, Britannica’s print edition has provided barely 5 percent of its encyclopedia revenue, which in turn is less than a fifth of its total revenue. The book set is essentially just an icon, providing the public face of the product while most of the sales have been in the more practical electronic editions. But it became too extravagant to maintain just for icon purposes. So it is making thr transition from icon to afterthought. The 2010 edition will remain in print for those situations where only the printed page will do, but the number of buyers will be small.

This is big news not because Britannica is still important, but as a threshold moment in the evolution of books. Previously, when you thought of a book, the print edition was the primary product, and electronic editions were alternate versions of the product. Soon, for most books, one of the electronic versions will be the primary product, and the print edition, when there is one, will be derived from the electronic edition.

I have just this year made this shift in my own book production processes, and I make the transition having not yet released an ebook of any importance. I will continue to prepare print editions, and there continue to be serious software problems with all the ebook platforms, but at this point, it has become more reliable and less expensive to prepare the electronic edition first, then format it for the printed page. It is just the opposite of what we did in the past.