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Encyclopaedia Britannica - Ah, the memories

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HPC blog Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc has announced that after 250 years, it’s throwing in the towel on print editions and moving to all-digital delivery of alphabetised facts and figures.

Encyclopaedia Britannica was a touchstone of my youth. You couldn’t go to a state fair or school event without seeing someone seated at a table next to a tall stack of books – books that held, in my mind, every fact worth knowing.

I was a kid who liked to read and was sort of an annoying know-it-all, which garnered me plenty of beatings in school. (Using words like ‘garnered’ probably didn’t help either.) So I was instantly attracted to the Britannica displays and eager just to leaf through the weighty volumes.

While I learned that the Trans-Siberian railroad was the longest railroad in the world, I didn’t understand the sales model of the crack Encyclopaedia Britannica sales force.

As I looked through the books and spouted off about stuff I pretended to already know, they were pumping me for information, and they had no problem getting it. “So what grade are you in? Where do you live?” and even, “Do your parents want you to go to college?” I think one of them asked me what kind of money my dad made, and whether my mom was what I’d call ‘hot,’ but I could be wrong about that.

After extracting all of the sales ammo they could, they’d lay out the hook. It varied from time to time. Sometimes it was a contest, other times it was a special promotion. But the bait on the hook was always the same: one free volume of The Books. For some reason, I never got a ‘good’ letter. It was always “K” or “J”, never the thicker volumes.

But that didn’t matter to me. I grabbed my free book, filled out the forms listing our address, our phone number, and the best times to call. I set my parents up for an encounter with a high-pressure salesperson who would Always Be Closing and not take ‘no’ for an answer – well, until my parents finally yelled, “NO!”. I put the family through this process at least half a dozen times.

After being pounded again and again by Britannica’s sales jackals, my mom bought a used set of off-brand encyclopedias. She got a great deal on them (at the garage sale at the home of a really stupid kid – Stan Barkheimer, if I remember correctly), but it just wasn’t the same.

When I had a daughter of my own, the Britannica sales force took a few runs at me, using the same guilt trip tactics that I watched my parents fight back in the day. But the landscape had changed by then. I was working in the tech industry and knew the score. I was able to easily repel them by saying, “Get bent, dumbass, we have the internet.” That worked pretty well, even in the early days when I still had to explain the internet to them.

So the passing of the print version of Britannica is a sad thing. But it also leaves a vacuum in the market, and nature abhors a vacuum. (It also abhors fat people in bathing suits eating, but that’s a different blog.)

I hatched a plan during a drunken dinner at SC08 in Austin that is now poised for overwhelming success. My plan? I’m going to print off parts of Wikipedia, put them in binders, and sell them at state fairs and school events. I’ll tell the parents that they can have the printed edition if they really want it ... but that the savvier parents are buying my “Cloud Edition” that gives their little scholars online access to the entire collection at once.

They just need to subscribe (Visa, Mastercard and PayPal accepted) and they’ll get a special password and URL that will unlock this vast storehouse of knowledge and put it at their fingertips. I don’t think I’m slick enough to make every sale, but I’d bet that a full-colour brochure backed up with my fancy sales patter could unlock some wallets. It’s worth a shot ... ®

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