Stop the presses: Britannica to go all-digital when stock runs out

March 14, 2012

By Alex Keefe

(Flickr/Todd Mecklem)

Flipping through a new hardcover volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica will soon be a thing of the past.

After 244 years in print, the Chicago-based company announced Wednesday it will discontinue its flagship print edition and go all digital when its current stock runs out.

"It should be considered ... the same way that people change from land lines to cell phones," said Encyclopedia Britannica president Jorge Cauz. "It is just the way technology has moved, and it is a sign of the times."

Despite the popular image of leather-bound tomes gathering dust on a home library shelf, Encyclopaedia Britannica now claims 85 percent of its sales revenue from digital programs for teachers and libraries, Cauz said.

Its main 32-volume edition has been continually in print since it was first published in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1768. But the proliferation of digital information on computer software and the internet has taken a bite into book sales, Cauz said. Sales of Britannica's flagship edition peaked in 1990, with 120,000 sets sold. In 2010, the company printed just 12,000 sets, and Cauz added that physical book sales now make up only about one percent of company revenue.

"The fact that Britannica is stopping the print of the 32-volume encyclopedia is just - it is a reflection of where the market is going," he said.

Well, not the entire market.

Chicago-based World Book, Inc. has no plans to discontinue its print edition, according to a spokeswoman. The company declined to provide revenue figures, but the spokeswoman said the company has a very healthy print business.

The last run of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's print edition is selling for about $1,395. Annual online subscriptions start around $70.