CHICAGO (AP) -- The Encyclopedia Britannica, afraid of becoming
just a dusty relic of the pre-computer age, is making its 32-volume
set available for free on the Internet.
From a-ak (an ancient East Asian music) to Zywiec (a town in
Poland), the Rolls Royce of encyclopedias was there in its entirety
starting Tuesday at the company's retooled Web site,
The 231-year-old company dumped door-to-door sales three years
ago and hopes now to make money selling advertising on its site.
The move may have been inevitable in an era when students doing
homework are more likely to get their information from a computer
than from a book.
The privately held company won't reveal revenue figures, but
sales of its print volumes -- which cost $1,250 a set and are now
sold mostly to schools and other institutions -- have seen a steep
decline, admitted Don Yannias, chief executive of Britannica.com.
In an Internet-dominated market, "you have to be free to be
relevant," said Jorge Cauz, senior president of Britannica.com
Inc., the new company that holds the Chicago encyclopedia
publisher's digital properties.
Free encyclopedias are only part of the lure. The Web site also
will offer current information from newspapers, news agencies and
70 magazines as well as e-mail, weather forecasts and financial
Analysts who follow Britannica say its belated but aggressive
moves into the electronic world, including some significant success
with CD-ROM sales over the past three years, just may work.
"They're clearly not going to be able to recoup their revenues
in the short term," said Aram Sinnreich of Jupiter Communications
Inc. in New York. "But the move just might save them in the long
For generations, Britannica set the standard for encyclopedias.
The leather-bound books were sold door-to-door, via direct mail, or
at shopping mall kiosks.
At its peak in 1989, Britannica had estimated revenue of $650
million and a worldwide sales force of 7,500. But with direct sales
abandoned, the staff shrank as low as 280 and is now about 400.
The company lost ground badly after it spurned Microsoft, which
went on to team up with discount encyclopedia publisher Funk &
Wagnalls to produce a colorful, multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM
in 1993. Britannica's own CD-ROM version, released a year later,
was low on graphics and did not fare as well.
Britannica became the first encyclopedia available on the Web in
1994, but there was an $85-a-year subscription fee.
Since Swiss investor Jacob Safra bought Britannica in 1996, the
company has been making a bigger push for the electronic market.
The online subscription fees were dropped and CD-ROM sales began to
account for the bulk of revenue.
"Before we were more backward-looking -- looking back at
historical events," Yannias said. "Now we can be right on the
brink of current events, incorporating the news with the
foundations of history."