Dictionaries will cease to exist when the sun goes supernova

Scotland’s Sunday Herald writes,

In the past four years, sales of English-language usage guides and dictionaries have plummeted by 40%, while other reference books, including maps, atlases and encyclopedias, have also shown a significant decline, according to research by Book Marketing Limited. Some publishers have even predicted that dictionary sales could cease completely.

I doubt that. I doubt that “dictionary sales could cease completely,” unless we’re talking about the total collapse of civilization or the destruction of the Earth. Dictionaries will continue to exist long as we are a literate people, as long as we have writers and readers, as long as our schools are thronged with students. They will continue to take new forms, but the digitization of dictionaries isn’t the death of them. It’s the door being rolled back from the tomb on the third day.

Dictionary-publishers are poised to make good revenue in the digital realm, it’s just that those revenue streams aren’t so visible as books on shelves. Every “free” dictionary you see is part of a complicated matrix of revenue. There was probably a payment made to the original dictionary publisher for the digital rights. There is probably a contract for regular updates from the dictionary publisher, an attempt to keep up with new words. There is money for exclusivity, for cross-referencing, for getting it in a tagged format so that good searches can be done. There is money for the size and kind of the content: concise or unabridged, with examples or without, with pronunciations or not, British or American.

The licensees make money through advertising and by having a high-volume audience that they can pitch their other properties to—because dictionaries alone are not enough of a draw. They do not offer compelling content. They are one-hitters. Visitors come for an answer, get it, and leave. For publishers putting their own dictionaries on their own web sites, getting dictionaries married to other content is key.

Posted April 29, 2007

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