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Summary:

The company that publishes the Oxford English Dictionary said it may never appear in print again, thanks to a continuing decline in demand. Does it matter whether there is a printed version of a legendary reference work like the OED, or is online good enough?

The CEO of the company that publishes the venerable Oxford English Dictionary said on the weekend that he doesn’t think the massive reference work will ever appear in print again, thanks to a continuing decline in demand for the hard-cover version. Although the company later said that there’s still a chance a printed version will be published, that chance seems to be getting more remote by the day. Which raises the question: Does it matter whether there’s a printed version of a reference work like the Oxford English Dictionary, or is online good enough?

Nigel Portwood, the Oxford University Press chief executive, told the Sunday Times that demand for the printed version of the dictionary — which had 20 volumes in its last printing in 1989, and cost $1,165 — had been dropping every year for the last decade, while demand for the online version (which costs $295 a year) continues to climb. When asked whether the next version of the legendary work would be available in print form, he said “I don’t think so” (a spokesman for the company later said that “no decision has yet been made on the format of the third edition,” and that a print version “will certainly be considered if there is sufficient demand at the time of publication”).

One of the main reasons why the OUP can’t be definitive about the eventual format of the next edition is that work on the new version of the dictionary is less than 30-percent complete, according to the company. A team of 80 lexicographers have been working on the new edition for decades already, and they are estimated to be at least another decade away from completion. The last version of the OED contained almost one-third of a million entries. (The first version of the dictionary was begun in 1879 and released in sections over a 44-year period from 1884 to 1928.)

The decline of the printed reference work, of course — which has also impacted companies like Encyclopedia Britannica — is just part of the broader transformation of the book, as e-book sales continue to climb and hard-cover sales fall. Simon Winchester, author of “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary,” told the Telegraph that, until recently, he’d been “clinging to the idea that printed books would likely last forever,” but that with the arrival of the Apple iPad “I am now wholly convinced otherwise.” Winchester said that “books are about to vanish [but] reading is about to expand as a pastime. These are inescapable realities.”

We seem to be gradually growing used to the idea that newspapers may move completely online, and that printed books may also become more of a novelty than a business. But should a major reference work like the OED go online only? It seems inevitable, but just because the dictionary publishes online doesn’t mean it has to submit completely to the real-time frenzy of the web, and try to emulate Wikipedia. The OUP could continue to update the dictionary only at certain intervals, but this job would be a whole lot easier — not to mention substantially less expensive — without the need to print dozens of books for just a single copy of the finished product.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): The Price of e-Book Progress

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user thrig

  1. For a book used only for reference, as a dictionary, the online version is the “natural” one. It doesn’t make any sense to print one, since you never read them, you only search in them.

    A novel is a different story, you don’t need notes or upgrades, you only want the best reading experience; and for that a physical book is still better. So I don’t really care whether the Oxford Dictionary or a textbook goes online only; I care if something like Twilight goes online only.

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  2. As long as they keep doing offline versions, such as the now-discontinued iPhone app. I don’t want to have an internet connection to use a dictionary.

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  3. It doesn’t affect me personally, but the only reason I’d be wary of seeing the OED go online only is historical. Say they next issue an edition in 2020… 500 years from now a hardbound version printed on acidfree paper might still exist. The online version of the 2020 edition almost certainly will not so we lose actual historical documents. That’s the reason ebooks make me nervous – if the hard copy of a book never gets printed, will we, 500 years from now, have a huge hole in the historical record?

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    1. That’s a great point, Rick — thanks for the comment.

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  4. Reference in particular is well suited to electronic media. Do I like print dictionaries? Of course, but there are very few designs that I actually like, especially in the etymology department. Why can I not design my own search and reference paradigm?

    A configurable and continually up to date product is the goal. Touch a word, get etymology and definitions… A product is actually the wrong word. A definitive application resource is more adept.

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  5. Online resources have many shortcomings compared to print editions. For instance, type in ‘hats’ in the OED’s search box and it tells you there’s no such word; type in ‘cats’ and you’re taken directly to the ‘catmint’ page (because cats-mint is an alternative spelling). More reasons why I won’t be throwing away my collection of traditional dictionaries here: http://virtuallinguist.typepad.com/the_virtual_linguist/2010/08/oed-online.html#tp

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  6. [...] at GigaOm, Matthew Ingram asks if we should care. His response, if I’m reading him right, is yes. I [...]

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  7. The mindset of delivering services through the online OED must be different from the ones for the hardcopy. It is not merely making the hardcopy into an ebook.

    Take a reference from the online TheFreeDictionary. Using Chrome with a shortcut key, I can just enter the word that I want to search at Chrome’s URL field and then enter to get its meaning and usage. It takes only couple of seconds for the transaction to complete. I don’t use it like a book.

    OED will need to find a way how to deliver such a service and how to monetize and sustain it in the midst of other early birds who have already occupy the online dictionary/thesaurus space.

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