Online Only for the OED: A Recipe for Losing Both Bookworms and Techies

Last Updated Aug 31, 2010 1:09 PM EDT

The venerable Oxford English Dictionary is planning to go online only, but the move is both too late and too early. It's too late to make a dent in the Web universe, and too early for it to build a reliable digital audience.

Sales of the upcoming third edition are down, Oxford University Press argues, because of online competition. OUP chief Nigel Portwood doubts the third edition, set to be complete a decade from now, will even be printed in full form. Instead, it would just print the severely truncated Oxford Dictionary of English and offer the full dictionary online.

Digital media is definitely taking over, but the Oxford University Press has too narrow of a vision to succeed in either print or online. In short, OUP should go big or go home. Here are the issues with the tentative plan:

  • Not considering print-on-demand: The only thing worse than book sales being down is not offering any book sales at all. Creating a set print run is so last millennium. If OUP was really interested in updating the format, it would create a limited edition or, better yet, print on demand system for the full dictionary. It could charge more for each set, too.
  • Online sales are already weak: The second edition, released in 1989, has been dropping in popularity, despite having an online presence. According to the Telegraph, "The most recent OED has existed online for more than a decade, where it receives two million hits a month from subscribers who pay an annual fee of £240", or about $370. Of course the popularity has dropped off. At this very moment you can visit, Urban Dictionary, and countless other free online services. How many web users need OUP pinpoint accuracy as opposed to a brief detail? I suspect not many.
  • Confusing digital with online: The big jump in growth isn't happening online, but in digital media. The Apple (APPL) iPad and upcoming flood of tablets, the blossoming of Google (GOOG) Android-run mobile devices, and the best-selling Amazon (AMZN) Kindle represent the future OUP wants -- an area that is, at this moment, unpolluted by free dictionary offerings.
An e-book-only version of the Oxford English Dictionary, which may have been what Portwood really meant when he said "online only", would be smart and practical, as would an interactive app on the iPad or comparable devices. Better yet, OUP should negotiate a deal with Amazon, Apple, or even Barnes & Noble to serve as its official dictionary for definitions within the respective e-reader. OUP has to do something to update the dictionary, but it will have to do more than charging an exorbitant amount of money for a service others provide for free.

Photo courtesy of The Story Lady // CC 2.0