The Work of the Encyclopedia in the Age of Electronic Reproduction
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The

Work of the Encyclopedia in the Age of Electronic Reproduction by Alex

Soojung-Kim Pang

Most discussion on the impact of the shift from print to electronic publishing has focused on issues like the fate of linear narrative, notions of authorship, and copyright. This article examines how the digitization of literature affects the craft of editing, and the everyday work of content producers. It focuses on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which like all encyclopedias has been profoundly affected by the emergence of compact discs and the World Wide Web. The digitization of the encyclopedia has affected the structure of articles; it has also begun to affect the character of editorial work, the responsibilities of editors, and relations with authors, animators, and others.

Contents

Introduction
The External World
The Economics of Revision
Relations with Authors
Conclusion
Notes
References

A number of writers have prognosticated on the future of literature, copyright, and commerce online. George Landow and Jay David Bolter, to name but two academics, have argued that electronic literature will possess qualities very different from its printed predecessors. Copyright lawyers and content providers worry that current copyright law will not apply to electronic publications or will be impossible to enforce, while Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) cofounder John Perry Barlow and a few others argue that traditional notions of intellectual property are irrelevant to the emerging realities of cyberspace anyway. Edventure Holding's Esther Dyson, McKinsey's John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong, and others have written extensively about online commerce, and argued that community-building will be central to the success of any e-commerce effort. [ 1 ]

However, few writers so far have spent much time talking about what impact the shift to electronic publishing-- the combined digitization of both the production and sale of content - will have on the authors, editors, and managers who create and produce content. The purpose of this article is to sketch out those changes, to show how the digitization of content-production and -publication looks from perspective of the shop floor, and to show how it changes the shop floor. During two years' service as deputy editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I was able to see at first-hand what the shift from print to electronic publishing means for publishers, authors, and editors. Newspaper and book publishers still enjoy strong revenues from printed products, or are working in both media; the encyclopedia market, in contrast, is already dominated by electronic products. In the recent history of the Britannica, it may be possible to glimpse the future of publishing.

This article is organized into three parts. In the next section, I'll briefly describe how the encyclopedia market has changed in the last several years, as CDs and the World Wide Web have emerged as major publishing venues for encyclopedias. In the third section, I'll explain what the shift from print to electronic publishing has meant for the craft of editorial work: how it affects our articles, the way it has changed Britannica's editorial priorities, and its impact on the what editors do. Finally, in the fourth section I'll discuss the ways the development of electronic markets and electronic editing is affecting our relationships with authors.

The External World

In the early days of the World Wide Web, a number of writers predicted that the commercialization and popularization of the Internet would lead to the death of the book, magazine, and newspaper. After several years of electronic books, online magazines, and newspaper Web sites, it appears that predictions that electronic versions of printed publications would kill their printed counterparts were premature. Instead, it appears that electronic publications are generally either read by different people than those who read printed works, or are used by them differently. The National Academy of Sciences Press, for example, put its new monographs online, and saw printed sales rise 17% in the same year. Apparently prospective buyers browsed through the online versions while deciding to buy, much as they would read a few pages of a book in a bookstore. In general, it seems that readers tend to treat printed and electronic versions of the same work - be it a newspaper or book - as different or complimentary, but not as competitors.

The important exception is encyclopedias. The development of the electronic, multimedia encyclopedia, and dramatic changes in the pricing of encyclopedic content, has transformed the market and the world in which encyclopedia companies conduct business. [ 2 ] Printed encyclopedias, no matter the publisher, have declined greatly in popularity for a variety of reasons:

  • For one thing, electronic encyclopedias give the appearance of being more interactive, accessible, and interesting than their printed counterparts: they don't just provide pictures, but also animations, video, and music, offer advanced searching capabilities, and links to the Internet.

  • Another set of reasons is economic. Encyclopedias have gone from being expensive, one-time purchases costing $1500, to mass-market items costing between $30 and $150. They're even available by subscription over the Internet, or sold to computer manufacturers, who bundle them with new computers. (One expert claims that more compact disc encyclopedias have been given away in the last ten years than print sets were sold in the previous 200! [ 3 ]) The price difference between the printed and electronic versions of magazines and newspapers is generally minimal: for most people, even the difference between spending fifty cents for a newspaper and spending nothing is not quite worth changing their spending habits. The difference between $1500 and nothing is something else entirely.

  • Further, the money that people used to spend on encyclopedias now gets spent on personal computers - which often come bundled with a multimedia encyclopedia.

The markets for electronic media have also segmented somewhat. In the past, our principal consumers - the people who actually paid for encyclopedias - were individuals. Today, the Britannica publishes a printed encyclopedia, a compact disc (Britannica CD, or BCD), and a Web site ( Britannica Online, or BOL [ 4 ]). The three versions have gradually diverged, like a supercontinent breaking apart into three similar but separate continents. The electronic encyclopedias have more articles than the printed version; audio, video and animations, which are impossible to include in a print encyclopedia; and a search engine and hyperlinks that change the experience of accessing and reading the encyclopedia. The electronic versions, in turn, differ slightly from one another: BCD and BOL have slightly different interfaces, and BCD has several features not available in BOL (timelines, a statistical program called Analyst, and multimedia spotlights).

Different kinds of electronic content also appeal to somewhat different markets. In the last few years the CD has generally been the platform of choice for home customers, while institutions - public schools, colleges and universities, and libraries - have proved themselves more willing to spend money on subscriptions to online services. This can be explained by several factors. One is the installed technology base: CDs have been part of home computers for several years longer than have fast modems, while universities have been wired for decades. Another is concern about control: parents can keep their kids from surfing over to playboy.com by not having a connection to the Web, while institutions generally consider this the price of freedom - or not their problem. Finally, libraries and universities have long been accustomed to paying for online services like OCLC and Lexis-Nexus, while many individual buyers still think that information should be free, or at least should come free with their new PCs.

This isn't a hard and fast market division, of course. Nor is it one that any electronic publisher anticipated, or wants to maintain: technologies change too rapidly for such things to last more than a few years, and we're all too interested in making money to let them stand if we can break them down. However, they're a fact of life for the moment, and Britannica's sales, like everyone's, tend to break down along these lines. BCD has been extremely strong in the home market, and with public schools and libraries with limited Internet access. The biggest market for BOL, in contrast, is institutions. As of December 1997, over 1,000 colleges and universities, and 4.7 million college students, had access to BOL. Most did not purchase BOL individually, but subscribed through consortia, groups of institutions that purchase subscriptions of electronic journals from university presses, databases like JSTOR, and online services. CIC, ACM, and other organizations buy BOL for groups of colleges, while state departments of education pipe BOL to grades K through 12, and throughout state college systems.

The Economics of Revision

The world in which printed encyclopedias were produced and consumed has vanished. The economics that control and constrain the production of encyclopedic knowledge have likewise changed radically.

In the days of print, the physical nature of the page, and the constraints it placed on economics and editing, determined how encyclopedias worked. Put simply, manufacturing costs drove everything. You knew when the printer was going to start the presses rolling, and you knew you had a certain amount of money to spend. Editorial schedules and budgets were then "backed out" based on those two variables, yielding that season's work. These strict and predictable economics made it possible for the entire system to be organized as a production line, with divisions of labor finely established, and copy flowing from editorial to copy, to art, to page makeup, occasionally back to editorial, and then to the printer. There were two other important factors guiding editorial work. It cost a certain amount of money to "open" a page for changes, no matter how big or small; and since it was not economically viable to add a few pages here or there, each volume of the encyclopedia was a closed system, and editing was a zero-sum game. When a new article or picture was added, something had to be cut.

This system required two important things of editors. First, they had to be generalists, since a page could have anything on it (an article on a French king, a mathematical theorem, a chemical elements, an Asian river, and a baseball player). Second, much of the work of producing an annual revision consisted of the craft-work of eliminating articles, fiddling with word and line counts, and rephrasing sentences to save (or add) a line or two. Indeed, it was a great challenge to make the maximum number of changes on the minimum number of pages, to add or change content without causing "rippling" or changes through more than a tiny portion of the encyclopedia.

Encyclopedias still have deadlines and ship dates, but in the digital world they're set by our markets, not printers. Academics make decisions about renewing subscriptions to online services in the spring, while the home market buys most CDs around Christmas, so new releases are timed to those buying seasons. Likewise, the constraints imposed both by the economics of print, and by the physical nature of the printed page, no longer bother us. The length of articles can now reflect the importance of the subject and the attention span of readers rather than the space available on the page, and editorial judgments need not be sacrificed on the altar of economics. Editors can concentrate on other things. Most important, they no longer need be generalists, but can be specialists working on articles that are not adjacent to one another on a page but related by subject. Indeed, not only is it now possible to revise all the articles on a given subject at once, but the economies realized by focusing editorial effort - commissioning, fact-checking, art acquisition - on specific subjects are more worth pursuing now that printing costs are so much lower.

This is also worthwhile because consistency and currency are very important to readers of the digital encyclopedia. In print, readers were less likely to notice if the distance to Alpha Centauri is given as 4.3 light-years in one place and 4.4 light-years in another, or different dates for the birth of jazz are given in two articles, or Genghis Khan is spelled two ways: the physical separation of related articles - usually on separate pages, often in separate volumes - made it harder to notice such variance. Now, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinking, apparently inconsistent information is - to use a tired phrase - just a mouse click away. Even when inconsistencies do not reflect errors, but choices between two reasonable alternatives (as is the case with each of the three examples given above), the basic problem remains: readers expect consistency, and are not necessarily able to tell the difference between simple mistakes and variations arising out of technical or philological disagreements. Readers also expect electronic publications to be more up-to-date than their printed counterparts. Everyone accepts that a printed volume slowly grows obsolete, but part of the appeal of the service of electronic publications is that they stay up to date.

Finally, the character of electronic texts encourage specialization and greater attention to bodies of content rather than disparate individual articles. Unlike in print, where they existed essentially as autonomous units, articles published in electronic media are joined to their kin by hyperlinks, yielding a body of content greater than the sum of its individual parts. This development finds a parallel in electronic reading habits, which tend to emphasize (or at least encourage) movement through interconnected texts rather than attention to single texts. It thus becomes necessary for editors to think about how changes to one article affect other articles, how well the structure and organization of a body of articles encourages or inhibits thoughtful browsing, and whether there are enough signposts and links to keep readers from getting lost. Print encouraged editors to think about articles as self-contained objects, but in the electronic world the "article" is starting to become as obsolete a unit of editorial planning and work as it is becoming irrelevant to readers.

The dynamics of multimedia development have further changed the way editors work. In this early stage in the history of the medium, text, art, design, and programming exist in close relationship to one another, and changes in one sphere can have serious effects on all the others: for example, a decision to change the standard size of a pop-up window, forced upon programmers by slow loading times, will require resizing pictures, rewriting captions and articles, and redoing a screen design. (Indeed, rather than being a realm in which content becomes a set of ones and zeros, capable of being broadcast, recombined, and republished effortlessly, electronic media ties content and medium more closely together than print. The contents of a book do not change if the pages are resized, or it is printed using photolithography versus offset press, in no small part because the constraints of the medium have already been internalized by authors.) As a consequence, multimedia development cannot proceed on the assembly-line model of print. Because it's much more fluid and dynamic, with nothing fixed at the outset, it requires people of varied backgrounds and interests to work closely together so as to better understand the consequences of decisions and respond in time to unexpected challenges. (Calling this "teamwork" isn't perfectly accurate, as it suggests harmony, a common set of assumptions about how the game is played, and agreed-upon notions of what constitutes victory. In reality, designers, artists, authors, and programmers have very different skills, work in different ways, and understand their goals and roles in their own ways. The term "collaboration," with its slightly shady political overtones, is much more precisely evocative.[ 5 ]) At Britannica, the people who keep these groups together - who articulate the basic vision for a project, who communicate essential information to different parties, and who make sure that the pieces come together to form a coherent whole - have been the editors. It used to be that they could work just on text; now editors have to work on just about everything.

Relations with Authors

Another emerging shift, which is still being negotiated, is with our authors. Put most simply, the model of author-editor relations is shifting from one characterized by short periods of intense contact to one in which authors provide Britannica with a continuous service, and from one that revolved around writing to one defined by the sharing of expertise.

In the past, once an article was published, it might not be handled again for a decade, and so keeping in constant touch with authors was not a high priority. However, the world - and the world of learning - is changing very quickly, and any encyclopedia publisher with an editorial division smaller than a good university faculty will lack the in-house expertise necessary to stay on top of the news and at the frontiers of knowledge. In fast-moving fields, like computer science, business, and astronomy, the challenges of keeping up with a field are growing more and more severe; it is even difficult to know enough about a field to know what new developments are really important enough to report. As a consequence, articles are starting to be revised more quickly, and on a more regular basis; indeed, the need for constant diligence is beginning to render the idea of a "finished" article obsolete. In the future, some articles will change every month, others every thirty years, but they will all change. As a result, authors will not be people who create specific pieces of work, but people with whom Britannica contracts for ongoing performances: their duties will revolve less around writing, than providing a variety of services that guarantee the accuracy and timeliness of a subject in which they are expert.

Contributors are also being pulled more deeply into the development of other kinds of content. Multimedia development is a challenging business, and mistakes can be very costly: authors who can work with artists and developers, and who can verify the accuracy of an animation or database, are far more useful than those who are concerned only with text. The scale of revision also creates new roles for contributors: on large projects, authors who can suggest other contributors, recommend sources for pictures, and provide other advice have already proved invaluable.

In short, it seems clear that authors are not going to disappear in electronic publishing; if anything, they're only going to become more important [ 6 ]. In some ways, these developments fulfill the predictions of academic theorists who argue that hypertext renders the concept of the "author" problematic: authorship of encyclopedia articles no longer points to a single action that produced a single, stable work, nor do texts possess the autonomy characteristic of printed works. At the same time, we're no closer to the much-heralded "death of the author" than we were in the days of print: the duties authors assume will undoubtedly change, but the basic social category will remain [ 7 ].

Conclusion

The development of the electronic encyclopedia has had a profound impact on the encyclopedia market: it has radically altered the economics of selling encyclopedias, and changed the way our markets work. Breaking free of the constraints of print have also had an impact on the character of editorial work, from the kinds of intellectual skills editors must have, to the way in which they go about editing. The culture of multimedia development, with its emphasis on speed and necessity for close collaboration, has turned editors into producers and coordinators of content production. Finally, our relations with authors is beginning to change: authors are evolving into constant suppliers of new content - reporters and advisors as much as writers.

About the Author

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang became Deputy Editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1996. He holds a Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennyslvania, and has conducted research on visual representation in science, the history of American technology, and science in Victorian culture.
E-mail: apang@eb.com

Notes

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Margit Dementi, Nathan Ensmenger, Paul Mosher, Tom Panelas, and Heather Pang for their advice and encouragement. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at conferences at Michigan State University and the Library of Congress; my thanks to those audiences for their useful feedback and suggestions.

1. George Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Technology and Contemporary Critical Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992; rev. ed., 1997); Jay David Bolter, The Writing Space (NJ: Erleben, 1992). Their work has set the terms for discussion about hypertext and multimedia's impact on the world of letters and communication: see Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, "Hypertext, the Next Generation: A Review and Research Agenda." The classic articles arguing that the Internet and copyright will collide are Esther Dyson, "Intellectual Value," originally published in Wired 3.07 (August 1995), 136-141, 181-185, and John Perry Barlow, "The Economy of Information," originally published in Wired 2.03 (March 1994), 84-90, 126-129; see also Robin Wright's interesting critique of Barlow, "Dead Head," published in Slate magazine (available to subscribers only). On community-building and electronic commerce, see John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong, Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1997); other useful recent articles include Shikhar Ghosh, "Making Business Sense of the Internet," Harvard Business Review 98 (March-April 1998), 126-135, and Constance Loizos, "Feeling the Burn," Red Herring (April 1998), 34-38.

2. On the history of Britannica through 1995, see Thomas A. Gerace, "Encyclopaedia Britannica," Harvard Business School case study 396-051, and Jeffrey Rayport, "Encyclopaedia Britannica: Teaching Note," Harvard Business School case study 396-419. The recent history is described in Adam Davidson, "Bound for Glory? The Venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica Struggles to Survive in an Electronic Age," Chicago Tribune Magazine (1 March 1998), 16-19; Michael Rozansky, "Encyclopaedia Britannica's Plight: Remaining Relevant in the Digital Age," Philadelphia Inquirer (19 April 1998).

3. Joseph J. Esposito, "Very Like a Whale: The World of Reference Publishing," Logos 7:1 (1996), 73-79.

4. For technical background on Britannica Online, see Liora Alschuler, "Behind the Scenes at Britannica Online," Seybold Report on Internet Publishing 1:3 (November 1996), 1-8.

5. The different worlds of editors, artists, and programmers is admirably surveyed in Fred Moody, I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year With Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier (New York: Penguin, 1993); additional insights on the culture of programmers can be found in Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997), the first chapter of which also appears as "D isappearing Into the Code," Salon 21st.

6. This compares rather sharply with the experience described in Paul Roberts, "Virtual Grub Street: Sorrows of a Multimedia Hack," Harper's Magazine (June 1996), 71-77; but see also the spirited response by Carina Chocano, "Don't Worry, Be Hacky," Salon.

7. This vision is articulated in Bolter and Landow (cit. n. 1), and admirably summarized in Ilana Snyder, Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth (New York: New York University Press, 1996); for a penetrating critique, see Richard Grusin, "What is an Electronic Author? Theory and the Technological Fallacy," Configurations 3 (1994), 469-483.

References

Liora Alschuler, "Behind the Scenes at Britannica Online," Seybold Report on Internet Publishing 1:3 (November 1996), 1-8.

John Perry Barlow, "The Economy of Information," Wired 2.03 (March 1994), 84-90, 126-129.

Jay David Bolter, The Writing Space (NJ: Erleben, 1992).

Carina Chocano, "Don't Worry, Be Hacky," Salon.

Adam Davidson, "Bound for Glory? The Venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica Struggles to Survive in an Electronic Age," Chicago Tribune Magazine (1 March 1998), 16-19.

Esther Dyson, "Intellectual Value," originally published in Wired 3.07 (August 1995), 136-141, 181-185.

Joseph J. Esposito, "Very Like a Whale: The World of Reference Publishing," Logos 7:1 (1996), 73-79.

Thomas A. Gerace, "Encyclopaedia Britannica," Harvard Business School case study 396-051.

Shikhar Ghosh, "Making Business Sense of the Internet," Harvard Business Review 98 (March-April 1998), 126-135.

Richard Grusin, "What is an Electronic Author? Theory and the Technological Fallacy," Configurations 3 (1994), 469-483. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/con.1994.0039

John Hagel III and Arthur G. Armstrong, Net Gain: Expanding Markets Through Virtual Communities (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 1997).

George Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Technology and Contemporary Critical Theory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992; rev. ed., 1997).

Constance Loizos, "Feeling the Burn," Red Herring (April 1998), 34-38.

Fred Moody, I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year With Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier (New York: Penguin, 1993).

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, "Hypertext, the Next Generation: A Review and Research Agenda."

Jeffrey Rayport, "Encyclopaedia Britannica: Teaching Note," Harvard Business School case study 396-419.

Paul Roberts, "Virtual Grub Street: Sorrows of a Multimedia Hack," Harper's Magazine (June 1996), 71-77.

Michael Rozansky, "Encyclopaedia Britannica's Plight: Remaining Relevant in the Digital Age," Philadelphia Inquirer (19 April 1998). Ilana Snyder, Hypertext: The Electronic Labyrinth (New York: New York University Press, 1996).

Ellen Ullman, "D isappearing Into the Code," Salon 21st.

Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997).

Robin Wright, "Dead Head," Slate.


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