Archive for March 22nd, 2012

Encyclopedia Brown and the case of the disappearing Britannica

I recently took a road trip to California with my husband, my sister, and a friend. My friend was driving and my sister was in the front seat when the following conversation caught my attention:

“Where are they?”

“I don’t know. They were just here.”

“I know! I saw you with them. Where did they go?”

The “they” and “them” in question was a bag of mixed nuts. The consternation over the misplacement of the nuts was comical, and I was immediately cast back into my childhood as I found myself saying aloud, “Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Disappearing Nuts.” Everyone laughed. (The missing nuts were eventually located under the driver’s seat.)

Then my husband chimed in, “Hey, speaking of encyclopedias, did you hear they’re going to stop printing the Encyclopaedia Britannica?” As a matter of fact, I had heard a day or two earlier. Interestingly, one of the culprits in the death of the 244-year-old Britannica is that 11-year-old online whippersnapper, Wikipedia.

According to a NY Times blog post:

In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

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The 2010 edition had more than 4,000 contributors, including Arnold Palmer (who wrote the entry on the Masters tournament) and Panthea Reid, professor emeritus at Louisiana State University and author of the biography, Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf (who wrote about Virginia Woolf).

Sales of the Britannica peaked in 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States. But now print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of the Britannica’s revenue.

We have entered the digital age, and there’s no going back.

Britannica isn’t the only encyclopedia making changes, however. A visit to that young usurper Wikipedia revealed something I did not know about my childhood friend, the floppy-haired Encyclopedia Brown: Donald J. Sobol, the series creator, is still cranking out the titles! Beginning with the very first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, which was released in 1963, he’s written a total of 27 of the lithe kids’ mysteries. About halfway down the list, I found the 13th book, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Midnight Visitor, published in 1977. And his most recent work was Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Carnival Crime, which came out just last year (2011)!

Encyclopedia Brown isn’t what he used to be, though. No – he’s had a makeover; the amiable, hand-drawn boy on the covers of old has morphed into a Justin Bieber knockoff. Nevertheless, could it be that good old Encyclopedia Brown will outlast the Encyclopaedia Britannica?

No 21st century mention of encyclopedias is complete without a note about A.J. Jacobs’ fantastic book, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. This book, truly one of the best I’ve read in the last 10 years, follows the author’s successful attempt to read the entire EB (Encyclopaedia Britannica) from cover to cover. Of course, it’s interwoven with Jacobs’ wry humor and delicate attention to personal matters, like his and his wife’s attempt to have a baby. Sample entries include:

Abbot, Bud and Costello, Lou

After a bunch of Persion rulers named Abbas, I get to these two familiar faces. But any sense of relief fades when I learn about their sketchy past. Turns out that the famed partnership began when Costello’s regular straight man fell ill during a gig at the Empire Theater in New York, and Abbot – who was working in the theater’s box office – offered to substitute. It went so well, Abbot became Costello’s permanent partner. This is not a heartwarming story; it’s a cautionary tale. I’m never calling in sick again. I don’t want to come back after a twenty-four-hour flu and find Robbie from the mail room volunteered to be the senior editor. It’s a tough world.

ABO blood group

Stomach cancer is 20 percent more common in people with type A blood than those with type B or type O. That’s me, type A. This is even more disturbing than the tale of the backstabbing Costello. Clearly, I have to be prepared to learn some things I don’t like.


As always, there are a few marketing lessons to be taken from these stories:

(1) Adaptability is key. Some might say EB waited a bit too long to make the transition to digital, but at least they’re now willing to try to adjust and keep up. Likewise, the genius boy detective has undergone his own metamorphosis. And as much as it pains me to say this, probably rightly so. Which book would your kid (or your child readers) be more likely to pick up, the ages-old cartoon or the cool-looking modern boy?

(2) Once you find something that works, do  more of it! Seriously – the first Encyclopedia Brown book was written a few years before I was even born, and I probably didn’t read my first of his books until the mid-70s. Yet at age 87, more than 40 years later, the author is still churning out new books! There were also an Encyclopedia Brown comic strip and TV series.

(3) Make something old new again. I promise you that A.J. Jacobs wasn’t the first person ever to read the EB from cover to cover, all 26 volumes and 40 MILLION words. But he was the first (or best) to chronicle his experience.

Lastly, speaking of Wikipedia, the free online multilingual encyclopedia project is written collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay. It is the #5 site on the Web, serving 450 million people every month, with billions of page views. To give you a sense of what the folks at Wikipedia accomplish with very little, Google has close to a million servers, and Yahoo has somewhere in the neighborhood of 13,000 staff. Wikipedia runs on 679 servers with less than 100 people on their staff. If you’ve used Wikipedia even once in the last month, please consider making a donation.

Happy researching!



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