There is no source of reference remotely as authoritative as Encyclopaedia Britannica. There is no brand as venerable and as veteran as this mammoth labour of knowledge and ideas established in 1768. There is no better value for money. And, after a few sputters and bugs, it now comes in all shapes and sizes, including two CD-ROM versions (standard and deluxe) and an appealing and reader-friendly web site. So, why does it always appear to be on brink of extinction?
The Britannica provides for an interesting study of changing fortunes (and formats) of vendors of reference. As late as a decade ago, it was still selling in a leather-imitation bound set of 32 volumes. As print encyclopaedias went, it was a daring innovator and a pioneer of hyperlinked-like textual design. It sported a subject index, a lexical part and an alphabetically arranged series of in-depth essays authored by best in every field of human erudition.
When CD-ROM erupted on scene, Britannica mismanaged transition. As late as 1997, it was still selling a sordid text-only compact disc which included a part of encyclopaedia. Only in 1998, did Britannica switch to multimedia and added tables and graphs to CD. Video and sound were to make their appearance even later. This error in trend analysis left field wide open to likes of Encarta and Grolier. The Britannica failed to grasp irreversible shift from cumbersome print volumes to slender and freely searchable CD-ROMs. Reference was going digital and Britannica's sales plummeted.
The Britannica was also late to cash on web revolution - but, when it did, it became a world leader overnight. Its unbeatable brand was a decisive factor. A failed experiment with an annoying subscription model gave way to unrestricted access to full contents of Encyclopaedia and much more besides: specially commissioned articles, fora, an annotated internet guide, news in context, downloads and shopping. The site enjoys healthy traffic and Britannica's CD-ROM interacts synergistically with its contents (through hyperlinks).
Yet, recently, Britannica had to fire hundreds of workers (in its web division) and a return to a pay-for-content model is contemplated. What went wrong again? Internet advertising did. The Britannica's revenue model was based on monetizing eyeballs, to use a faddish refrain. When perpetuum mobile of "advertisers pay for content and users get it free" crumbled - Britannica found itself in familiar dire straits.
Is there a lesson to be learned from this arduous and convoluted tale? Are works of reference not self-supporting regardless of revenue model (subscription, ad-based, print, CD-ROM)? This might well be case.