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Sales of final Encyclopaedia Britannica print edition soar

Handout / Reuters

Selling like hotcakes. After announcing in mid-March that it would no longer publish the print edition of its eponymous series, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., was overwhelmed with orders for the final edition.

It seems that old chestnut about absence making the heart grow fonder is true — at least when it comes to reference books. After announcing in mid-March that it would no longer publish the print edition of its eponymous series, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., was overwhelmed with orders for the final edition and is down to fewer than 800 copies of the $1,395 set.

Spokesman Tom Panelas said the company expected orders to increase after the announcement, but didn't anticipate that the typical 60 orders a week would balloon to over 1,000. "The size and duration of the spike has been a little bit stronger than we expected," he said. "The first couple of days, our phone lines were overloaded. The people who take the orders were here one night past 10 o'clock... the senior executive in that area was answering phones."

First printed in Scotland in 1768, the 32-volume encyclopedia has been available online since 1994. The company published its first encyclopedia on CD-ROM in 1989, but that was a different, shorter encyclopedia, because the entire Britannica couldn't fit on a single disk at the time. 

"The print set has, for a long time, been a marginal part of our business," Panelas said. He said the company plans to focus on expanding its electronic offerings, which include numerous educational reference publications, an iOS app and its flagship Britannica Online, which costs around $70 for an annual subscription and is updated "many times every single day."

Panelas attributed the surge of interest in the print edition to "a lot of nostalgia... People have so much affection for the set." 

Besides keeping copies of the final print edition for the company's own archives and for its editors to use as a reference, Panelas said the company is exploring donating sets to various museums.