CXO investigate

Paper vs digital: Why you can't flog a dead encyclopaedia

We're living through the closing chapter of paper and the printed word - and we shouldn't mourn their passing.

The cost of online access to everything is zero compared with the expense of limited access to paper. Photo: Shutterstock

Written in London and dispatched a day later from a coffee shop via a free wi-fi service at 20Mbps in Woodbridge, Suffolk.

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica has come to the end of the road. It's going out of print to be replaced by a $70 annual-subscription online service. The last paper version, which weighed in at 129lb, consisted of 32 volumes and cost $1,400. It was significantly out of date before it reached the printing presses, let alone the bookshelves.

An empire that once commanded thousands of salespeople worldwide was brought down by the web. In its entire history it only managed to reach about seven million bookshelves, providing status, decoration and thermal insulation for homes in winter.

No other book series in the history of mankind has presented such knowledge and yet been so underused.

I remember the salesman calling at our house in the 1950s with sample tomes, engaging my parents in a lengthy discussion rich is superlatives. All questions of price were studiously skirted until the last minute, when my parents suddenly realised the product was way out of their financial league.

My father was a manual worker. We were a poor, and books were not a defining feature of our home. But we had a few friends who we thought of as being rich, and they had books on show in polished wooden bookcases, with the Encyclopaedia Britannica taking pride of place, above the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Because they were revered and expensive, I was never allowed to touch let alone peer inside family friends' encyclopaedia volumes. Like religious icons, they looked down on us, shiny and untouched, to be dusted down from time to time and venerated by those who recognised their true significance.

I often wondered if children anywhere were allowed to use these volumes. I assumed not. Perhaps only with parental guidance was a tome lifted down and the pages ceremoniously opened to reveal the precious text. Curiously, my school never owned a copy, but the teachers were fond of citing facts and figures from its pages as if they were holy writ.

No one worried about my home not having sufficient reading material. I was packed off to the public library every weekend, and I would regularly lose a few hours surfing the shelves, to return home with a good read.

How the world has changed. Today, I hear people talking about the digital divide, the information haves and have-nots. By the standards of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s these things are illusions.

Today, the cost of digital access to everything compared with the limited access to paper is zero. And the only reason people are offline is through choice and ignorance.

In the UK the public libraries are being phased out as being too expensive to support through taxation. At the same time the number of PCs, laptops, iPads, tablets e-readers and smartphones per household is among the highest on the planet.

You don't have to be a genius to see where this is going. The world of passive paper is dying. It is extremely uneconomic and cannot support a seven-billion population.

However, every time anyone puts forward such a view, the paper protection league leaps to the defence of an information-deprived past. The good news is the protesters grow fewer in number year on year through natural causes, or by seeing the light - perhaps from a LCD display.

The digital ratchet cranks on another notch. There'll be no going back - not even after 244 years.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

55 comments
CMuhic
CMuhic

I fully accept the advantages of digital books--but I'm not sure you got my concern. How do people get stimulated to explore new areas of interest if we lose libraries and bookstores? I'm not saying it's not possible--but that I'm concerned about using things like search engines that try to learn our likes and dislikes and therefore funnel us towards reading material that will already agree with our pre-conceived notions. You mentioned that you are reading more than ever before. How are you finding information about other things to read-and do you think you're reading about a broader range of topics? I'm not criticing--I'm truly interested as I'm probably missing out on ways to broaden my reach and intellect (if any).

CMuhic
CMuhic

From the outset, I should make it clear that I am probably an old fogie. I don't say this with pride--only that I realize my limitations. There are a couple things that concern me about going paperless--especially when it comes to books. The first is that I find it much less stressful to read a mutli-page document in paper format than on a screen. Admittedly it may be the quality of my screens-or it may just be that at 49 I've spent more time reading on paper than electronically. But if I have to chew through a multi-hundred page government report (and I do) I find it easier if its printed. But I understand that this may not be a problem for younger people who have grown up being able to read things via screen. Second-and most importantly to me-I wonder how people will be able to find a way to stumble across interesting reads if the printed book disappears and the bookshop with it. I cant count the number of times that I've gone into a bookstore to look for one book, or just to kill a few hours, and come out with books on all sorts of topics I never would have thought about if I hadn't seen it on the shelf and picked it up out of curiosity. I'm not saying this can't happen online. But it seems with all the search engines being programmed to point out things that are likely to appeal to the viewer-it will only serve to focus people in only one direction (for example-those that believe that their church, political viewpoint, or other personal belief is the ONE AND ONLY true whatever) and won't help people discover all the wonderous and thought-provoking material that exists outside their current philosophy. Frankly-I'd love to be shown that I'm wrong. I greatly appreciate that electronic media can be easily updated and made accessible easily to everyone. I just wonder how people are going to be stimulated to look for things that can broaden their minds and make them more rounded people without something like a library or bookstore where they can just stumble over material that they never would have found online because they didn't even know to look for it. I'm just hoping there will be some way for both to survive--or someone will find a way to put together electronic "bookstores" that don't rely on search engines to funnel peoples inquisitiveness along already established lines.

Slayer_
Slayer_

It is not surprising that encyclopedia is dead, when someone can learn anything they want by typing it into Google. It is not easy searching through 32 books. Even worse, the information will be biased. And you can't just find the information in another encyclopedia to remove the bias. With the internet, you can. As for normal story books, paper is here to stay.

Hans Schmidt
Hans Schmidt

I can remember many times in my life when I just sat for an hour at a time just reading random articles in an encyclopedia. It was fascinating. We couldn't afford Brittanica. What we had was interesting, if outdated and I still have it in my permanent library. Today, at 71 yrs, I do the same thing, but I do it on the internet. The internet always reminds me of the fabled Library of Alexandria. It will be a lot harder to burn down.

boucaria
boucaria

I Like Traditional Paper books, PDFs ( and variants), and audio-books; audio-books are curiously omitted in this discussion. I have been a reader on Side-Band Radio stations for current news which was aimed at blind and low vision people. In functional terms, PDFs are easier to search ( if you need a quick answer), but Traditional Books are great for the tangible element, and I have yet to see an autographed version of a PDF... what do I do, take a flash drive and have the author sign that ? For my value I can see the value in all formats. I enjoy Paper Books( Hard Backs for many reasons, especially collectors editions)... in my view my 1808 copy of an essay in ethics is great: the feel of it is great. The PDF, and e-books ( which so often get priced about the same as the equivalent paper book), and the audio book ( which I do like on disk, and if Large Book Collections ever get to Ultra Violet, I will not be buying them. Anyway, someone who focuses on the pre-eminence of E-books over paperbooks can have their views; I do not think it is correct. Paper, E-Book, and audio books are all valid and useful versions of information and entertainment media. Just my view.

Hans Schmidt
Hans Schmidt

Book shops are not libraries. They are there to make a profit. Like Walmart, they will stock what they can sell. Like Walmart, they will, in most cases, order in what they don't stock. I'm sure Barnes & Noble will have anything you want, right over the internet. I once helped some folks who ran a gift shop. They had thousands of dollars of beautiful things that owner loved. But it didn't sell. So, it became an expensive museum, which generated no income, only expenses. Can you guess the outcome?

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

I skimmed/read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in my early teens and still have the late 1950's era set at home. So at least [i] one [/i] kid did read them. My eldest cracked one open last year (she's a 22yo college grad) and was surprised by how well written the articles were, if dated.

Hans Schmidt
Hans Schmidt

I love books, always have. One good thing I got from my mother who introduced me to the magic of the printed word. I do not like trying to read a book on a screen. It's fine for articles, etc. but not for books. Encyclopedias - I use Wikipedia all the time. It's good enough for my purposes and the range of material is beyond belief, It's hard to find something that isn't covered.. Consider when many of us spend a good portion of our day at the terminal, we don't want to get up and go search Brittanica every time we want to know something. So, yes, Google and Wikipedia are rendering printed encyclopedias outdated for most purposes. There will always be a need for authoritative encyclopedias, but not in printed form. Many times I have discovered books on the internet, and then purchased a hard copy. Excluding reference material, I think the printing industry will do well. For me, there is nothing like a book.

mperata
mperata

In 1954, when I was 8, my parents bought a set of the World Book Encyclopedia. We were a blue collar family so the Encyclopaedia Britannica was beyond their their budget. I would sit, away from my brother and sisters, away from my parents, away from the new thing called a TV and I read cover to cover all 20 volumes in about a year. There was something very comforting about having a book in front of you, turning the page and waiting for what wonder would appear on the next page. I don't, can't get that from a eBook, iPad, laptop, desktop screen. When I was traveling coast to coast for KPMG Consulting (SAP R3 Financials) I would buy a book and finish it on the outgoing or return flight. It gave me respite from the electronic world that I lived in during my workday. While the delivery of knowledge will always find its best method, books will always be books and will never go out of style.

AudeKhatru
AudeKhatru

"Today, the cost of digital access to everything compared with the limited access to paper is zero. And the only reason people are offline is through choice and ignorance." Hubris in the extreme. I know many people who are not online because they cannot afford it. I guess they UK doesn't have anyone who lives below the poverty level, but here in the US, we do. They can't afford computers, they can't afford internet access. Now, you may say that some of it is ignorance, because there are even more people who probably could afford it, but don't understand why they should want it.

Elwood Diverse
Elwood Diverse

I have in mind a device that looks like a book, with multiple pages that can be flipped, but which can be loaded with the content you desire. It should accept content from flash chips, USB or download and display it (when I wish to) on the pages I assign for it. I could flip from document to document, highlight passages, copy/paste, carry my whole library around, but it would still feel and look like a book. Doesn't need 100s of pages, maybe just a dozen or so. It would have a keyboard inside the cover that slides down while open so I can input while looking at any pages I select. On adjacent pages I could put content I wish to compare. Mouse (prefer) and/or touch compatible. It would be a variation of the tablet that can do all a laptop can do if a laptop had a couple dozen displays that could be flipped, with a display that mimicked paper in readability. Even then I would still treasure paper books. Maybe we could add that new book smell to the new device, too.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

...the world's billions (hence, I surmise, the bio term 'futurist'); most of us humans have never even used a phone---let alone owned one, much less have ANY kind of internet access. Our planet's most heavily-populated areas are also, with few exceptions, the poorest. The world's teeming billions are, by and large, NOT a short stroll from the public library's WiFi. Why does it take a TR gadfly to point this out to a 'professional futurist'? I also submit that he's making a little much of his anecdotal experience with a neighbor's reference books (those he saw were unused except as a status symbol, so he found it expedient to extrapolate everyone else's experience with them to support his view that their potential value goes unused). When I was a kid, our family had an early-1960s World Book Encyclopaedia/Atlas, then, a few years later, the full Collier's. These were heavily used; aside from our school assignments, my parents assigned my sister and I an endless series of reports/essays to MAKE us use them! When I got to 6th grade, I began reading the Brittannica in my school library end to end (having skipped 2 years, I had 5 years left, and finished it my last (10th) year of public school. I'm 52 now, and I still--when a place, thing, or person is mentioned--remember overlapping passages from the 3 encyclopaedias to which I was exposed while young. I'm grateful to have had parents who cared about their kids' educations, but I never suspected that nobody else ever read theirs, let alone ever looked something up. One thing you can learn in an encyclopaedia is that most of the world's people have a marginal, subsistence-level standard of living (and over 30% of us don't even make it to age 16). One thing you can 'learn' from a futurist is that they're all surfing the web, downloading eBooks, texting each other.

mc_belleza
mc_belleza

though i have a kindle, i still read books printed on papers because some books were not yet converted to digital form...

rizaladitya20
rizaladitya20

I think, the weakness of a digital technology is the use of electricity. wherever you go, digital pocket you will always need electricity. different from the book, in the eyes are not tired, the price is always less expensive than digital. Only the weakness of the book is the size and capacity. In my opinion, probably based on the condition of a country.

JustPlainJim
JustPlainJim

Peter, I am all for info on the web, but you have a disappointing view of life. I had a set of EB when I was a child, and I treasured it and used it. Just as having a large, illustrated, readable translation of the Bible in the home inspires one to read it, having a set of EB in the home inspires one to learn. A parent suggesting a child logon to this or that website just doesn't cut it. And your comment about people being "offline through ignorance" is just downright insulting.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

price, and sell it as a status item to the filthy rich. If there's a market, there will be product, Encyclopedias, the latest missive about sparkly bloodsuckers, a religious tome .. The paperless home is as likely to happen as the apperless office, futurists have been predicted for decades. So I call shennanigans...

jfuller05
jfuller05

Folks I talk to who have kindles, nooks, etc. tell me they still read physical books because their e-readers just can't replace the experience. I know it's not a strong argument because digital books are cheaper to produce and cheaper to buy, but digital books cannot recreate the experience of reading a physical book. Now, it could be that only folks who grew up reading physical books will continue to do so and the generation growing up reading a book in digital format will not miss the experience, so physical books may just "die" someday, but I think that someday is a long time from now. Also, it could be that ereaders only claim victory over paper magazines. I won't argue that reading a quick article on a smartphone, ereader, etc. is not as enjoyable as reading it in paper form because articles are read quickly and usually thrown away later. They're throw away reads, you know? So, maybe magazines will go to digital only and I don't blame companies for taking that route either because let's face it: it's good business. I just can't imagine though long reads going to digital only. Reading martian chronicels, the shining, or a large tech manual in digital format? Naw. Not for me.

peter
peter

CMuhic = Social networks - business and friends - being linked to interesting and smart people helps a lot. Being a part of several professional bodies helps too. Going to conferences on and off line...its all about networking.

bkfriesen
bkfriesen

You pose a couple of good questions. 1. How do I discover new things to read about? I'm a compulsive Wiki and Googler. Many times those searches lead to the purchase of new books. (The Gutenberg Galaxy is a good example of that.) I'm also surrounded by people with a very wide diversity of backgrounds. When we're in the middle of discussing, for instance, economics, and they recommend a book, I can be reading that book within a minute. Because of the convenience, I've been able to read books from sources as varied as St. Anselm to Goethe. I'm confident that I would NOT have checked those books out from a library. 2. Am I concerned that Googling will only reinforce and 'funnel' my current interests? I've always enjoyed the nature of search engines and wikis. I've found that a small seed, if pursued and researched, leads me into unexpected (and previously undiscovered) areas. I love the esoteric, and have always had a desire to understand the underpinnings and origins of things. For me, the nature of the internet, with its vast resources, is the ideal way to satisfy my bent for exploring the obscure. And my digital devices are simply an extension of that. Great questions. Appreciate your open minded attitude.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Read one, see link to something else interesting, click that, read more, repeat. This is much harder to do in a library.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

and I find I can browse just as well at Amazon or B&N on line as I can in the stores. Both offer suggested books based on what you looked up.

bkfriesen
bkfriesen

I've got you by a few years (I'm 52). I've been a voracious reader most of my life, and have really grown to depend on my digital devices exclusively for reading. I haven't read a paper (analog) book in over 3 years since I installed Kindle on my first iPhone. I currently have an iPad, an Android phone with the Kindle app, and since Christmas, a Kindle Fire. I'm reading more than I have in my entire life (except for the teenage years when I'd go without sleep for a couple of days to finish a book). I'm also reading a broader range of books than ever before - I can be reading a book that I hear about within 60 seconds. The best part of the digital books? I carry an entire library in my pocket. I would have a problem giving up my digital books.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Even after governments redefine it to look they've won teh war on it again.... This clown doesn't associate with that sort though.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

...in the Apple and Amazon quasi-monopolies match (or EXCEED!) the cost of the tangible, dog-earable-if-you-want-to, analog (bound) versions?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Today, the cost of digital access to everything compared with the limited access to paper is zero. And the only reason people are offline is through choice and ignorance." Peter must spend a lot of time poaching off coffee shop WiFi. I'm not aware of any spot on the planet where Internet access and the requisite hardware are completely free of charge. Access and hardware cost money, and someone somewhere is paying for those services indirectly. 'Free' WiFi from a business is included in operating costs, passed on to the customer. 'Free' Internet at the library is paid for by taxes, along with the hardware to access it. But if they were free, it overlooks those areas that are still without even dial-up access. There are portions of the US where the only options are cost-prohibitive satellite connections.

peter
peter

And 20 people will by these as object of beauty and place them onto a book shelf never to be touched....whilst the over 5.5Bn can access on-line info via their mobile...go figure!

peter
peter

But then again, paper books rot away and don't last as long as clay tablets or rock! Not a very enlightened point of view....

bkfriesen
bkfriesen

I've heard your argument for physical books before. For some people, they seem to provide a richer experience. I've been a voracious reader since I could read (4-5 y/o). Since I obtained my first smart phone 3 1/2 years ago, I've read more than at any other time in my life, excluding my teenage years. I've also been able to read books that I would NEVER have had access to. The punchline: I haven't read a single paper book in the past 3 1/2 years. I find them awkward and inconvenient. I've read posts that accuse people like me of not being 'true readers'. Beg your pardon. You state that digital books cannot recreate the experience of reading a physical book. I LOVE books and have always treated my paper books as the treasure that they are. However, I can now carry an entire library in my pocket, or better yet, on a server that I can access easily. I'm aware of the disadvantages that come with the current DRM models, but am willing to accept those limitations for the conveniences that I've spoken of. Will physical books go the way of the dodo? Perhaps not, but eventually, as the economies of scale shift to the digital publishing world, theyll certainly become less and less common.

peter
peter

...but they are already insignificant, along with newspapers and magazines - just the preserve of the old and backward looking...the RoW have moved on...the old print media cannot reach everyone....but the www can...

tkejlboom
tkejlboom

I'm tired of books getting the axe because they don't don't fit in either 1 or 3 volumes. In fact, I'm tired of all the old metrics. Digital will win, when people finally stop shackling it with the economies and limitations of paper. Reality check, literacy rates and sales of books 30 years ago were awful. I can't help but wonder if the defenders are up in arms about the loss of their class enforced superiority.

CMuhic
CMuhic

Thanks much for that. You make some great points and I can see where you could open your research into much greater areas than the facilities that exist in most printed material depositories. I guess it all comes down to having an open and enquiring mind. Certainly it doesn't matter WHAT resource material you may have available if you don't have an interest in using it. And a curious mind will probably always take the time and trouble to look for interesting things.

bkfriesen
bkfriesen

Well said. That's what happens.

CMuhic
CMuhic

The last sentence is what I'm talking about. "Both offer suggested books based on what you looked up." The thing about libraries and bookstores - for me - (and I understand this may not be true of everyone, or even most people) is that I can stumble over all sorts of other interesting things to read while looking for material. With Amazon or B&N--they direct you to other material BASED ON what you were already looking up. I do use both services--but I'm not sure I'd run across material on Building A Log Home or Parasailing if I'd looked up books on How to Use a Digital Camera. In a place with printed books I could do so easily. Or hundreds of other books to peak my interest. But I freely admit that if I'm looking for additional information on a particular topic-the internet is a wonderful place with all sorts of linkages. And it may be that my mind is programmed along more ancient lines and its time for people like myself to be retired or retrained. But it saddens me to think it might be more difficult for someone to be a "Renaissance Man" (a well-rounded individual in terms of thought and knowledge). Then again-perhaps it is time for this type of person to be dead and gone.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

Hahahahaha! More of the world is like Honduras and Sudan than it is like Tokyo and NYC. Futurist: "WE are the world" Realist: "It's a jungle out there" Lots of places on THIS planet, people don't know where their next meal's coming from, they have assault rifles, they walk 5 miles/day for water, and are illiterate.Claiming that they can "access on-line info via their mobile" is laughable. As in, "No bread?! Then let them eat cake...."

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I reccomend business 101. We are talking making a profit here, not educating the planet.

DenisPC9
DenisPC9

I like your style. It keeps the flow of arguments continuous. The US has hundreds of miles of computer tapes containing historical information that they can no longer read. If one goes by various articles one reads. And its not for nothing that most countries archive legislation states that archived historical (and presumably legal) information must be stored in a machine readable form and/or paper. And in the words of that immortal plonker (I cant remember his name) "It just ain't no fun taking a laptop into the crapper to read the paper" or words to that effect ;-)

lehnerus2000
lehnerus2000

I can still read a book (or clay tablet) without a computer or electricity.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The web can reach everyone? Everyone with a computer and Internet access; that isn't 'everyone' (yet). Paper costs more to publish and distribute, but the operating costs for the reader are a one-time charge, not an ongoing monthly fee.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

I, for one, am dying to hear about the "www reaching 'everyone' ". (And an expansion on how humans w/o hardware and/or internet connectivity are perforce 'ignorant'). Your generalizations about humanity are bizarre, to say the least.

peter
peter

Nice one :-)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Only two things have changed in the book market over the last thirty. One's the rise of digital format, the other is, they make less of profit on paper media. Exaclty the same problems as those faced by the video and music distribution industries. The real reason they are losing money isn't that we are running out of trees, it isn't that people are hacking in to proprietry book read formats and sharing them on P2P, it's that people who read, don't care whther some dumb bint fancies a bloke who sparkles in the daytime... Write a decent book I'll pay for it, always have, always will. Signed Working class person with taste and an IQ above 50

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

but at my Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million, digital cameras are in the Photography section, parasailing is in Sports, and I suspect building home is in How-To or Construction. I see your point and I love killing time in a brick and mortar bookstore, but I don't think the online recommendations are any more narrow than what you'd get if you confined your searching to a single section of the physical store. You'll definitely get a much better selection online. A B&M is only going to stock the best sellers, as Tony H. was complaining about earlier.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

That's the ironically-hilarious 'takeaway' (as TR calls its headline repetitions) for this article. :-O

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

or from the way popular publishing has always worked. I can't find pants with a 29" inseam on the rack, because there aren't enough short-legged people to make it worth stocking them. How does it kill the format to print and sell what the public wants to buy?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

What are the shelves full of? Unless you go into a shop dedicated to selling books, and search hard, it's wall to wall vampires. From what I've seen the non-paper media boys are doing the same. Try and get say Robert Grave's "Goodbye to all that", or Solzenitsyn's "A Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich" No chance, all they offer is popularist drivel turned out by the ream by talentless plagiarist clowns, or people who haven't had a new idea in decades. Writeing what the publishers think they can sell, not what I want to read, about as much use as LL Cool J's greatest hits III.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I'm unclear what Harry Potter or Twilight have to do with the decline of paper publishing, but you've mentioned at least one of them in both your posts. Care to explain the connection? I've seen release parties where kids queue up in costume at midnight waiting for a new printed volume, just like they would for movies. I don't see how that hurts paper books, or how it can't be viewed as helping. They aren't my cup of tea either, but they're not aimed at you or I. I'd find 'Cat in the Hat' pretty boring these days too. I don't care what kids are reading, or what format, as long as they're reading at all. I view the series you cite as 'gateway drugs', introducing their audiences to recreational reading and resulting in an addiction that requires more sophisticated to maintain the 'high'. We can't all get 'hooked' by 'A Wrinkle In Time'; what gets someone started isn't as important as the act of starting in itself.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I want paper, and more to the point I'm not interted in young wizard's sparkly bloodsuckers ot Z list wannabe biographies.

lehnerus2000
lehnerus2000

I seriously doubt that most of the world's population has access to the Internet. They certainly don't have PCs, eBooks or iPads.

peter
peter

Your still not getting it - 7Bn people can't have paper books - so far online info has reached 5.5Bn...time to think anew...