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Wikimania 2007 Taipei :: a Globe in Accord

This page is part of the Proceedings of Wikimania 2007 (Index of presentations)

The economics of writing and publishing an encyclopedia

Author Mathias Schindler (Wikimedia Germany e.V.)
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The talk is to present the economic structure of commercial encyclopedia writing, exemplified by several products in the American and European market. It starts with a description of the financing of the French Encyclopédie and ends with the 21st edition of the German Brockhaus Enzyklopädie. The remainder of the talk is about answering the question how much a paper publication of the Wikipedia encyclopedia would cost.

In 1728, the Cyclopaedia was published in England as a commercial and public success. 10 years later, a project was initiated to translate and expand this encyclopedia into French which took more than 25 years to accomplish, facing the dangers of the french pre-revolutionary repressive system and personal disputes among the publishers. In the end, more than 25,000 series of the Encyclopédie were sold, resulting in 2.5 million livres of profit (~ 30 million US dollar of profit in today's value, roughly).

Since then, encyclopedia publishing has become a well established and faily researched market with many players with a long history in that business. Ignoring some interrupts, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. can claim a 200+ year history of book publishing, having been under the corporate rule of different entities and having moved to the US in the early 20th century.

The ascension of the Internet in its different incarnations triggered a significant change within this industry, resulting in many rather famous failures such as the spin-off "Encyclopaedia Britannica Online" and its experiments with ad-driven publication. In Germany, Brockhaus and Holtzbrinck spent about 7-15 million Euro in order to start a reference works platform called "xipolis.net".

Even if the internet has great advantages over paper publication, 90 per cent of the costs of making an encyclopedia go directly to the actual writing. Therefor, the costs of content delivery do not change the economics that much. Whereas selling a 30 volume encyclopedia in print can be done for 2500 Euro, selling the same content for 1500 Euro in digital form will face great resistance and rejection of the market.

In 2006, a German publishing house started to announce the idea of a print version of the German language edition of Wikipedia in 100 volumes.

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