Britannica 3, History Of

At Encyclopaedia Britannica headquarters it was time for Something To Be Done, time for some of the old whizbang called product innovation.

In a 1961 memo to the Board of Editors, Adler sang a song of product image, salesmanship, and balance sheets. He argued that a restructured Britannica "should give the sales force and the sales promotion department a shot in the arm. Furthermore, it should put EB further out in front—in relation to all its competitors here and abroad. This would be so new and advanced an encyclopedia that its competitors would never be able to catch up." That is, assuming it sells. Adler predicted that "just as the Syntopicon dramatizes the special character of the GB [Great Books] offering, gives the sales force its most useful sales gimmick, and puts GB way ahead of all potential competitors, so the proposed Syntopicon volumes for EB could have the same kind of sales effect."

But Eugene Solo, vice president in charge of sales, doesn't think so. A sharp dresser who talks from the side of his mouth, Sollo says that the Propaedia, "saleswise, is baloney." The sales force made some trial runs before the publication announcement and they found the Outline of Knowledge too complicated for their customers easily to comprehend. The Micropaedia (although salesmen don't use the fancy ersatz Greek monikers) has so far shown itself to be the surest "sales gimmick" in the set. Self-education, though, is a siren song indeed, and in any long­-distance run you have to bet on Adler's invention.

Plan B's utility to the editor, Warren E. Preece, and to his executive editor, Philip W. Goetz, was fundamental. The Outline of Knowledge in its earlier manifestation as a table of intentions was the instrument by which concepts were transformed into the outlines of articles which Preece commissioned, beginning in 1969. Goetz explained that "the Propaedia was the secret we had to guard most closely. Because any encyclopedia could be built on that system. What it told you was what the state of learning was in every field, and we really kept it under wraps."

Hiding the processes of Plan B was no easy trick. While the editorial offices at 425 North Michigan Avenue are now abandoned warrens, a jumble of hidden cubicles arranged along blind alleys, Britannica's headquarters were for a long time very busy indeed. While most other reference book companies were laying people off, the Britannica was hiring enough editors­—360 at the staff's peak—to process an average of 400,000 words a week, to check for accuracy, to pick among the million and more pieces of artwork considered for illustration, to assign articles and modify them.

In fact, the entire project was successfully kept a secret, and the people Britannica executives were most eager to keep in ignorance were their own salesmen. John Robling, vice president for public relations and advertising, said Britannica's greatest fear was to take the wind from the sails of the 14th edition before the 15th was ready to be sold. In other words, the company wanted its salesmen to peddle an obsolete set (otherwise the new one couldn't be paid for), but it didn't want them to know they were peddling an obsolete set. "Obviously," Robling concedes, "some people are going to be disappointed, and say, 'If you knew you were going to bring out the set, why didn't you just tell us?'" As it happens, a trade-in policy has been created for those unfortunates burned with sets of the 14th, and though the president of the Britannica, Charles E. Swanson, was tight­-fisted with an exact figure, it seems that between $75 and $150, plus of course the 14th, will fetch Britannica 3.

The new set will sell for between $550 and $700, depending on its binding and the other products, or merchandise as they like to call it, the buyer wants. (Wants is perhaps not precise, since it is rarely possible to buy the Britannica without investing in a bookcase or a pair of dictionaries or some study guides or Britannica Junior. As the salesmen see it, this extra stuff is thrown in free with the set. As I see it, the buyer is forced to buy extra stuff. And if Plan B was highly classified information, try, just try, to get a direct reply to this question: "How much does the set, I just the set please, cost?")

Britannica 3 will stand or fall on the utility and intellectual character of the nineteen-volume Macropaedia, the set's 4207 long articles. From 1969 it was Warren Preece's responsibility to select contributors, to hold them to a high level of generalization, to placate them when they were offended—and often justly—by liberties taken with their text. Preece is a tall, bearded fellow, articulate, a man evidently sensible of the effect he registers on people near him, a man who knows his mind. His special signature as a Britannica editor has been his conviction that Britannica editors know better than Britannica authors what an article should say and to whom it should be said.

Copy was very lightly edited during the days of the 14th edition, on the theory that contributors were smart fellows and good writers, else they wouldn't have been selected as contributors. (Also, a writer paid two pennies per word for his work could not be expected to tolerate the added infamy of rewriting.) The editors of the 15th edition worried copy mercilessly. Every article had been outlined before the contributor received his assignment, and when he received it he was warned that to add to the material in his outline would be to duplicate material appearing elsewhere in the set, while to ignore something included in the outline would be to leave it out of the set. Contributors were not to write for their fellow specialists. This had been one of the Britannica's most flagrant vices since the days of the 11th edition. Before that day, it might almost be said that most readers of the Britannica—because of its high price and more dignified profile—were educated generalists. But after the beginning of this century, as the educated reader's knowledge deepened and narrowed, the erudite specialist began to write for the set not to inform the layman of his apprehensions on a subject, but to defend himself against the ridicule of some peer eager to charge him with barbarism and simplification.

The result was an increasingly incomprehensible set of books. The articles on mathematics traditionally were applauded by journals that judge articles on mathematics, but their utility to the general reader was marginal. The effect was the creation, in the 14th edition, of an intellectual babble rather than an intellectual concert. For the new edition it was assumed that the curious, intelligent layman would be ignorant of the details of material he looked up (why otherwise look it up?) but that he could read English and was prepared to exercise his wit and reason.

Contributors were paid a minimum of $100 for an article, and a maximum of $5500, and they averaged ten cents a word. A set of encyclopedias was given as a bonus for the longer articles. Few complained about these fees, but many complained about the violence done to their copy in the name of clarity and concision. About two hundred of five thousand abandoned their assignments in anger, or missed deadlines till they were sacked, or couldn't produce what was expected of them.

Contributors were kept in the dark about Plan B's grand design, and many of them balked at the rough treatment they received from Preece, and from Philip Goetz, who with Preece read all the articles in the set in whatever capricious order they happened to arrive in the office. Goetz, speaking without regret, said "we really shoved it down their throats. People in the arts all fancy themselves good writers, and they gave us the most difficult time." There was a sensible embargo against jargon, and one against bias, the latter probably impossible to enforce without gutting some of the articles and robbing them of salt. It will take a great deal of time for evidence to accumulate regarding the intellectual vitality of this set of books. Accuracy, of course, can better be won by a committee armed with computers than by a single intelligence. But while accuracy binds the trust between reader and contributor, eccentricity and elegance and surprise are the singular qualities that make learning an inviting transaction. And they are not qualities we associate with committees.

It must be left to someone with more time and greater patience to review the set. (Such an enterprise has been performed, believe it or not, in past years, perhaps most notably by C. K. Ogden in 1926, for the Saturday Review of Literature.)

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