Books aren't dead. But 32-volume encyclopaedias are

An era comes to an end as cheap CDs force Britannica to lay off its direct sales force
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Encyclopaedia Britannica is laying off its 70 door-to-door sales staff because customers have lost their appetite for the 32 volumes. The CD-Rom equivalent is cheaper, faster and longer. Clare Garner reports on the death of an institution.

It was not only mistrust of doorstep sellers which led to their downfall. The direct sales team did their best to handle the public's prejudices about pushy predecessors but they could not talk their way round the advent of the CD-Rom and the Internet.

Parents who in the past would have saved up for a complete set of leather- bound volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to do their bit towards their children's homework can now pick up the Britannica CD-Rom - a single disc - for a fraction of the price. And for the same money they can also buy a home computer to run it on.

The cheapest printed version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the "classic brown" bought by libraries, costs pounds 845. The most popular is the "heirloom" version at pounds 945, but for pounds 3,000 one's initials are gilded in gold across each volume.

But in these multimedia times the direct sales staff are finding it hard to persuade customers of the relative merits of these versions.

The same 44 million words are available on the CD-Rom for pounds 125. For pounds 7.99 a month, Internet users can subscribe to the Britannica Online version which, unlike the books, is constantly updated. And there are countless alternatives including Microsoft's Encarta encyclopaedia, which costs just pounds 49.

Consequently, this year marks a radical departure in sales techniques for Encyclopaedia Britannica.

From April door-to-door staff will be history and in their place will come a major advertising and marketing drive for the Britannica CD-Rom. Sales will be mainly through normal retail outlets.

Tim Pethick, vice-president and general manager for English language products of the US-based company, admitted that while the salesmen's tricks have "largely changed", the public did not respond well to a knock at their door.

"Unfortunately when people think of encyclopaedias they think of pushy door-to-door sales people," he said.

"That's one of the contributory factors to the decision to get out of direct selling. It has been a painful decision."

Mr Pethick added that there had been fundamental changes in consumer buying patterns. "In-home selling served us very well for many years, but today our customers want to buy in other ways.

"The revenues generated from in-homes sales efforts no longer justify the costs ... We will be selling through direct-response advertising. People will just send a cheque or give their credit card number. No salesman will call."

But it is the advent of mass ownership of personal computers which has had the biggest impact on Encyclopaedia Britannica, founded in Scotland in 1768. For the young generation, the route to knowledge is on-screen and their parents' biggest educational purchase will probably be a PC.

Encyclopaedia Britannica expects to sell 80,000 Britannica CD-Roms in the UK this year, compared with just 4,000 printed sets. Worldwide sales of the bound volumes are anticipated to be 25,000, that is, 85 per cent down since the early 1990s.

books versus the cd-rom

We set two researchers - one with the 32-volume Britannica, and one with the Britannica CD-Rom - the task of seeing how long it took them to find the answers to these three questions:

1. Who led the first Roman invasion of Britain and when? (Julius Caesar in 1st century BC).

2. What are the three bones in the middle ear called and what are their functions? (Auditory Ossicles: Malleus/Hammer, Incus/ Anvil, Stapes/Stirrup.)

3. In which year was War and Peace published, and how old was Tolstoy? (1869 and 41.)

The book:

1. Took three references and five minutes to find.

2. Two minutes and two references to find.

3. Found on first search, six minutes.

The CD:

1. Found under `Romans AND Britain' in three minutes.

2. Difficult to find specific details. Took 15 minutes to find.

3. Three minutes.