By the time Britannica’s top management decided to stop producing bound sets of the iconic encyclopedia, the company had made sweeping changes to put itself at the forefront of the online education market.
ne year ago, my announcement that Encyclopædia Britannica would cease producing bound volumes sent ripples through the media world. Despite the vast migration of information from ink and paper to bits and screens, it seemed remarkable that a set of books published for almost a quarter of a millennium would go out of print. But in our Chicago offices this wasn’t an occasion to mourn.
In fact, our employees held a party the day of the announcement, celebrating the fact that Britannica was still a growing and viable company.
They ate the print set—in the form of a cake that pictured the 32-volume, 129-pound encyclopedia. They displayed 244 silver balloons—one for each year the encyclopedia had been in print. They toasted the departure of an old friend with champagne and the dawning of a new era with determination.
We had no need for a wake because we weren’t grieving. We had known for some time that this day was coming. Given how little revenue the print set generated, and given that we had long ago shifted to a digital-first editorial process, the bound volumes had become a distraction and a chore to put together. They could no longer hold the vast amount of information our March 2013 Harvard Business Review 2 This article is made available to you with compliments of Jorge Cauz. Further posting, copying or distributing is copyright infringement.
How I Did It
Britannica Then and Now
customers demanded or be kept as up-todate as today’s users expect. The reaction to our announcement was interesting and varied. Some people were shocked. On Twitter, one person wrote, “I’m sorry I was unfaithful to you, Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia was just there, and convenient, it meant nothing. Please, come back!”
Of course, we didn’t need to come back, because we hadn’t gone away and weren’t about to. But although most people seemed to know what was happening, some misunderstood. Commentators intimated that we had “yielded” to the internet. In fact, the internet enabled us to reinvent ourselves and open new channels of business. Reports cited Wikipedia as a disruptive force. In fact, Wikipedia helped us sharpen our business strategy. Our content model was dismissed as “vintage,” but it is actually anything but: We update our content continually, with community input, reaching tens of millions of people every day—and they pay for it.
I relished the irony. If you relied on free, gossipy online channels to understand why we were ending the print edition, you got what you paid for: some jokes, some inaccurate observations about the state of our business, and maybe a 20% chance of seeing “Encyclopædia Britannica” spelled correctly. You may not have learned that by the time we stopped publishing the print set, its sales represented only about 1% of our business, that we have an increasingly significant presence in the K–12 digital learning space, and that we’re as profitable now as we’ve ever been.
Whatever ripples the announcement may have made, from a business perspective the decision itself was a nonevent. It was just the final phase of a carefully planned strategic transition that had been 35 years in the making.