Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Britannica in search of a business model

Encyclopedia Britannica is in a life-or-death battle of quality vs. commodity, and so far commodity has won every round. In the past 10 days, both Wired and the Merc have reported that its latest plan is: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The wonderful Merc article by Lisa Krieger spells out the details: sales of the once invincible Britannica dead tree edition peaked in 1990, and the vaunted door-to-door sales team got the axe in 1996.

About the only thing it left out is what happened in between — how the bookshelf of paper got supplanted by the CD-ROM encyclopedia: first, Microsoft’s Encarta, then EB’s World Book, and now its own CD-ROM edition. Of course, the potential audience for a $30 CD (now DVD) is a lot greater than for a $1400 shelf worth of paper.

More recently, the problem is Wikipedia, the free user-generated content that has more articles of lesser quality at no cost. A discussion of the relative merits of EB and Wikipedia is worthy of a journal paper — actually several — but after presenting at Wikimania back in 2006, I realized that I’m not going to have time to write one.

I used to contribute to Wikipedia but got tired of wasting time arguing with people who don’t know what they’re talking about who decided to “fix” my (economic historian’s) contributions. Suffice it to say that I use Wikipedia (it’s cheap and convenient), but never trust it due to its flawed production process. For example, the article on Symbian lists two companies as “founder shareholders” who didn’t come in until months later, something that takes about 2 minutes with the NYT (or WSJ or FT) database to verify.

However, as with other commodization, Britannica is finding it can’t compete with free. (Perhaps Chris Anderson will offer some advice in his new book). Its demonstrably better quality is preferred by serious researchers, librarians and even a few teachers, but today’s K-12 schools are raising a generation of dolts who think looking something up in Wikipedia (or even on the free Internet) constitutes research. I know, because I get them when they turn 20, and have to teach them what real research is — not always succeeding at the task.

Britannica has yet to solve its fundamental problem of not creating enough value that people are willing to pay for it, other than competing with Microsoft in the DVD-ROM market. However, this month Wired and Merc reported that Britannica would start supplementing its professional content with outside contributors. Unlike Wikipedia (but as with Google) its contributors would have qualifications beyond just being able to type like a room full of monkeys. This seems like it will ultimately be as successful as hybrid open source strategies (i.e. not), but I can see they have to try something.

As an author, I am so there — to be able to write on a few topics where I’m one of a small number of experts in the world and not have to worry about vandals. (Linkabit? Open source business models?) However, I could find no evidence of the new program on the Britannica website, or news coverage beyond these two articles (or direct copies). So either it was a trial balloon, vaporware, or it’s in private beta.

Even if they go live, over the next two months I have five more papers to finish up (all but one co-authored) and send off to journals. That leaves no time for EB, and probably less time than usual for the blog(s).

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