Organisations in the information industry such as Book Publishers and Libraries would do well to learn from Encyclopedia Britannica’s precipitous fall from grace.
Formerly a powerful company that could demand and receive large payments for access to it’s storehouse of human knowledge, it’s now been reduced to near irrelevancy and suffers the ignoble fate of being sold by discount clearance stores.
The Encyclopaedia Brittanica set of printed volumes is the oldest continuously published reference work in the English language, having been in print without interruption since 1768.
They were onto a good thing and made great profits for a long time but innovation in the form of vast amounts of free information on the Internet appeared unexpectedly from the periphery and dealt Encyclopaedia Britannica a knockout blow that’s left them woozy and barely hanging onto the edge of the boxing ring ever since.
Like King Ozymandias in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, Brittanica had believed that it was near invincible and any competitors to it’s throne would look at it’s mighty work, despair and give up.
Don’t get me wrong, Britannica Online was launched in 1994 which was just before public usage of the Internet really took off & Britannica’s arch-nemesis Wikipedia only got launched in early 2001
As Mark Pesce describes in his talk The Alexandrine dilemma, Britannica online was a subscription-based reference site for 5 years until 19th October 1999 when “the online version of Britannica containing the complete unexpurgated content of the many-volume print edition was unlocked and made freely available, at no cost to its users”.
For the next few months Britannica Online became one of the most popular sites on the internet but in the face of having to service this traffic via more and more servers and escalating data transfer costs management decided to retreat into their shell, putting the content behind a paywall and charging a $7/month subscription fee. Traffic soon plummeted to previous low levels.
This was their last best hope for success in the brave new online publishing world and yet they killed the experiment because of a crisis of over-popularity that any other website would have killed for.
If they had been brave and far sighted enough to let their quality content stay free within the publicly available Internet and allowed crowd sourced updates to their encyclopedia entries than they could have possibly become the defacto source of information Wikipedia is today.
The issues they faced were not new: all online publishers have struggled to find out how they can turn high-quality content into a money-making business where profits are greater than costs.
Shifting back to a subscription model reflected a natural conservative urge by management to avoid relying on fickle online advertising income but in the end it was also Britannica’s downfall because organisational success on the internet directly correlates to how open the organisation is willing to be with it’s information and it has been demonstrated time after time that online readers are notoriously reluctant to pay for content hidden in private information silos regardless of it’s quality.
Institutions like libraries and industries like Book publishers currently feeling the icy winds of change would be well advised to learn from this story and read books like The Wisdom of Crowds, Here Comes Everybody, Wikinomics, Crowdsourcing and The Wealth of Networks to decide how they will fight back against competitive threats in their sector.
Putting your head in the sand and continuing with business as usual when faced with a bold new competitor that threatens your core product/service is irresponsible suicidal behaviour that threatens the jobs of employees and dooms owners/shareholders to huge losses as the organisation diminishes in importance over time.
Don’t stick your head in the sand…. photo credit: blakeimeson