Network: Publish and be damn smart

The 34-volume Grove Dictionary of Art weighs in at a hefty 85kg. But on the Internet you can access its 26 million words with a finger. Richard Charkin, the head of Macmillan and publisher of the Grove, believes the time is ripe for electronic publishing.

If booksellers were quick to embrace the possibilities of Internet business, book publishers have kept their distance. Burned by failed experiments with CD-Roms, they worry about copyright (can you control distribution of e-text?) and quality (is the Internet a graveyard for substandard writing?). But, more than anything, they worry that consumers won't exchange the familiar feel and smell and ease of paper books for digital versions.

However, what if a book contains so much information you can hardly pick it up, let alone afford to buy it? The 34-volume, 26 million-word Grove Dictionary of Art is a case in point. Published by Macmillan, the world's most comprehensive art reference book weighs 85kg, takes up 176cm of shelf space, and costs pounds 4,900 - meaning only well-funded libraries and extremely wealthy private collectors can afford it.

Enter the Internet. Last November, Macmillan started offering subscriptions to an online version of the dictionary. Institutions pay pounds 900 and individuals pay pounds 275 for a one-year subscription (carnets for 10 24-hour sessions cost pounds 50). The online version has all the text of the print version, plus updates and links to images of artworks. With the Grove Dictionary of Art Online, Macmillan is betting that ease, affordability and the promise of constant updates will bring customers around to the idea of buying access to - rather than owning - a digital book.

To date, about 300 subscriptions to the online version have sold - compared with 5,000 copies of the print version, published in 1996. But Macmillan expects sales to pick up. Already, the online version has attracted prestigious institutions: subscribers include the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Barber Fine Art Library at Birmingham University, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Frick Collection in the US. As people realise how accessible the dictionary is, Macmillan believes individuals interested in the art world, as well as corporations and institutions, will subscribe.

Certainly, the online version beats the print version in terms of utility. Instead of travelling to a library, subscribers can use the dictionary from any computer with Internet access and a version 4.0 browser, simply by going to the dictionary's website ( and entering a user ID and password. Search engines scour 41,000 articles to bring up a list of places where a specified topic is mentioned. Cross-references embedded in the text mean users can move from article to related article with one click - far easier than the cumbersome process of reshelving one volume and picking up another.

The online version has also extended the print version's content. While the original contained 15,000 illustrations, the online version contains links to 12,000 images held by art galleries around the world (for example, a link from the article on Leonardo da Vinci goes to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre's website), and gives subscribers access to the Bridgeman Art Library's collection of 100,000 images (at the moment, 30,000 images are available; 70,000 will be added by the end of the year).

"We had to limit the print version's content - the number of illustrations of Picasso, for instance - because of the size," explains Richard Charkin, the chief executive of Macmillan and driving force behind the company's move into electronic publishing. In the online version, however, there is no limit to the number of illustrations and entries that can be included.

Another advantage is that entries can be updated to include new academic research and biographical changes. "Like any printed book, the print version was out of date as soon as it was published," Charkin says.

A team of editors at Macmillan keeps the online dictionary up to date. They have made more than 5,000 changes in 1999, including reports on the deaths of Roy Lichtenstein and Willem de Kooning, and new entries on Britpack artists Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. The editorial staff also create original content covering art world events such as the Turner prize and are developing links to pricing and auction sites.

The move from print to Internet publishing hasn't been trouble-free, however. Macmillan has had to take measures to avoid pirating: access to the site automatically cuts off, for example, if too many pages are downloaded in one sitting. Also, Internet publishing demands high levels of maintenance and customer service. In the past, a book publisher's customer service department dealt with filling orders during business hours. Now, customer service representatives might also handle late-night technical queries.

The online dictionary has created new editorial tasks, such as maintaining the quality of the links. When the Louvre changed its URLs earlier this year, Macmillan had to work quickly to recode the links in the space of an hour. "We have to change our whole way of doing business," Charkin explains. "We're inventing systems."

Some museums are contesting the legality of the links. Macmillan, is currently in talks with the museums, maintaining that the links are perfectly legal. "We are not taking their content into the dictionary," says Charkin. "We are taking customers to them."

Charkin, who is chairman of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, believes that museums will have to find new ways of generating income by getting people who come to their sites via the Grove Dictionary to become a friend of the museum or make a purchase in an online store.

Still, the online version makes a lot of business sense. The original version took 14 years and over pounds 20m to complete. Publishing the online version cost a fraction of that, says Charkin - though he expects it to cost twice as much in the long term, as the expense of maintaining the dictionary adds up. Moreover, publishing on the Net doesn't incur printing, shipping, retail and other distribution costs, which account for 75 per cent of most cover prices. Internet publishers can pass this saving on to customers - or spend it enhancing editorial quality.

Ultimately, the online dictionary's success will depend on how many people buy it. Those who have seem satisfied, so far. Gregory Walker, head of collection development at the Bodleian, says it generated "strong academic interest", and Karen Jackson, arts liaison Librarian at the Barber, says she feels "very positive about how it's going to work". Both the Bodleian and the Barber own the print version, too, and at the moment Jackson says she can't imagine the online version entirely replacing the print version, though "if it is heavily used and we are struggling to find funds then that is something we would consider".

Charkin remains confident that the online dictionary will be as popular as the print version. "I really think this is going to be the single art source of the 21st century for all layers of users - academics, collectors, schools." More online projects are in the pipeline: The New Grove Dictionary of Opera Online is due out this month; The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians Online are expected next year.

Charkin has said he aims to make Macmillan Reference 50 per cent electronic within three years. There are plans to take online publishing beyond reference books. A Web community for economists is in development, and Charkin is keen to publish English language teaching books online, where they can be inexpensively accessed by teachers in the Third World.

Is Charkin overly enthusiastic? It's too early to tell. Certainly at Macmillan his claims are taken seriously: in the downstairs lobby at the company's Eccleston Place headquarters, the 34-volumes of the print dictionary sit enclosed in a glass display case, like an outdated curiosity in a museum. A few minutes away in Victoria station, a bookshop stands empty at midday. But people are crowding to a bank of PCs, where an ISP is hawking free Web demonstrations. If there were ever a right time for publishers to introduce the digital book, this may be it.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing