The demise of Encyclopaedia Britannica – is this the inevitable end for all print?

It has been widely reported today that Encyclopaedia Britannica is ceasing publication of its print version after 244 years.  In the face of competition from initially Microsoft’s Encarta (remember that?) and now Wikipedia, the investment of thousands of pounds in a static repository of knowledge for individuals and institutions no longer makes sense.  But, in a world of Kindles and Apple’s iBook Textbooks, does this point to the inevitable demise of all things print?

The short answer is, I believe, no.  Firstly there is the historical perspective.  As has been noted many times over the years no one new media “class” has replaced another.  Television did not replace radio.  Digital audio has yet to supplant analogue (in fact vinyl sales have been growing recently).  And the internet has not replaced linear TV.  What seems to happen is that each new media makes the mix of consumption more complex.  (Note that within genre of media, there can be replacement – DVD replaced video, and will eventually be replaced by digital streaming – but video delivery remains – ditto the replacement of illuminated manuscript with print …).

However, within print certain classes of “misfit” publishing will vanish.  Encyclopaedias are one such class.  For what is an encyclopaedia other than a database in a book?  It has been crying out for the invention of digital to add the functionality (e.g. cross referencing) that it has tried to implement in a ham-fisted fashion on paper … this was clear from the early days of electronic legal publishing where even traditional, hide-bound barristers found themselves buying databases such as CELEX and the All England Law Reports.

Where does that leave other publishing formats?  Well, an ebook does not add much functionality to a novel – other than portability at the expense of fragility.  My expectation is that the two will co-exist for generations more.  The case against the traditional textbook is easier to make.  These are repositories of knowledge.  They are multimedia – containing images (and would be enhanced by video), contain exercises and assessments, and so are prime for a gradual decline.  However, until the hardware delivering an electronic textbook becomes cheap, reliable and ubiquitous (and Apples iBook for iPad is none of these yet), this cannot happen.  But the market is aware of the potential disruption, and this is causing a systemic decline in sales.

So is print on its way out – no.  But are there more classes of print publishing that will go?  Without a doubt – and the textbook is likely to be one of them.