Abandonment of the print dictionary?

How do print dictionaries cease to exist now that all information is a click away? Publishers are constantly being tried and tested to come up with innovative ways to stay in the public eye, for example, coming up with a word of the year. They are being embroiled in the drama of e-books, pricing and digitisation to name but a few.

According to the bookseller who interviewed the, CEO of Oxford University Press, Nigel Portwood, 2014 saw profits plummet by 8% from £111m to £102m. Portwood noted that the drop in profits was a “complicated story”, with a loss of £5m in foreign markets.

The end of print?

Let’s cast our minds all the way back to 2010. The sales of print in the US have dropped to 700 million units. (Neilsen bookscan) Amazon reports that the sale of the e-book has surpassed that of hardbacks, and google has launched google e-books.

This was around the time that the founder and chairman of MIT media, Nicholas Negroponte claimed that the physical book is dead. He believed that the physical book was being replaced by digital. “It’s happening,it’s not happening in 10 years, it’s happening in 5. years”.And who can blame him? It’s a sensible assumption to make. And he was not alone.

“As a result of a dynamic internal in the field of scholarly publishing, the sales of scholarly monographs- the staple output of the University presses have declined dramatically” (Thompson 2010)

 Transition to digital

For a while digital learning has been on the rise; after all it has become a key element of the world in which we inhibit. Why would a student shell out for a premium dictionary, a product that is constantly being updated, rather than typing something into a search engine for free?

Resources such as google offer significant new research and a much broader access to new ideas and new contextual materials. Researchers and students need to consult with a much wider array of academic sources, so consequently digitisation may benefit them as the bar needs to be raised.

As insightful as the Oxford English dictionary is, it’s never going to be able to keep up with the ever demanding growth of slang or specialised terms as swiftly as online search engines. Plus online sites such as Wikipedia can offer a wealth of knowledge that surround a particular word that a print version cannot,with links and cross references. In 2014, there was even a video claiming that the latest edition was too large to print.


We are compromising quality for convenience. OED cannot afford to cut corners when it comes to production.

“I know these upstart electronic dictionaries aren’t up to the standard of some of the old twenty pound monstrosities, but the convenience factor is unbeatable.” This is a statement found in the comments section of the article, adequately titled should we still buy dictionaries?’  It has come from a father whose ten-year-old son uses an iPad to operate an app called ‘ Here I pose the theory that the younger generation are growing up with various digital platforms embedded into their everyday learning, therefore they do not know any different and perhaps will not when they possibly become students. Another part of electronic learning is that people want to hear what a word sounds like; a characteristic which unfortunately the printed version does not posses.

Although dictionaries offer a sense nostalgia they do don’t offer practicality, with so many of us living in the digital age, where it easier to exploit apps and the medium of the internet.

“As to the great , multi- volume Oxford English dictionary itself, here is a top tip. I cannot imagine that many of you have the space to house it (or the money to buy it) But it is available online”. (Stevenson 2010)

Decline of library budgets

Copyright. One great George street library

Libraries play a key role in dictionaries, as they stand now and the future. As stated in a paper dedicated to the resource allocation for libraries on a higher budget, by the head of library services, libraries are receiving a minuscule portion of University spending. Only 8% of the collections budget is used on libraries where data bases and reference materials are being made priority.

Unfortunately, this does not look to be improving any time soon. In turn, with budgets being ruthlessly snipped, fewer people are utilising the space of the library.

Oxford vs Collins

The dictionary market is one of an oligopoly nature, with Oxford’s main competitors being Collins. Having reviewed a poll on the student room, I found that over 50% of students preferred the Oxford dictionary, with 38.5% leaning towards Collins, and 11.5% choosing from another press.

We still need a print dictionary though, surely?

The dictionary will forever be a respected and historical artefact, a part of Oxford’s background and culture. You cannot riffle the pages of an online source, nor can you put a bookmark on a page that you so frequently use. OED offers a higher calibre of references, which are perhaps more respected than a website?

In an article in the guardian, Christina Zabba says of the press , a “unique brand unmatched anywhere else on earth”.

“When we watch students with books, there’s a very different experience – there’s that power of having something physical that they own, particularly when they write and see their name in print: it’s always there. With computers, it’s gone at the touch of a button.” (Gerald Richards)

A published report in The Huffington Post, states that 92% of students say that they prefer print books. This was after Naomi Baron, author of “words onscreen: the fate of reading in the digital world”, conducted a survey that asked 300 students to see whether they preferred print over digital. One student of Arizona state university, Steven Hernandez had this to say; “I believe that the possibility and the likelihood of distraction is too high when it comes to online learning tools like textbooks”.

The bookseller also carried out its own primary research for its children’s conference in 2015.The results were similar to that of Baron’s; young people prefer print. This survey was carried out by a market research company, Youthsight., who asked. 1,000 young people aged between 16-24 if they prefer print or digital, 64% of which stated print as their chosen method when it came to reading

However it is worth noting that preferences do not equate to sales. Even though 16-24 year old’s prefer print, it does not mean that they intent to buy them. In fact, these subjects may not even have the means to purchase these books, so essentially this factor of whether the books are preferred does not come into the equation.

How are the press surviving currently?

Oxford University Press relies heavily on licensing, and according to its research data page, OUP licences “ linguistic assets which include a selection of bilingual and technical dictionaries.

Copyright. Chinese book USA

More than 80% of OUP’s business is done outside of the UK, and overall the press prints over 4,600 new books a year worldwide.

The route to the online has also been made with Oxford English dictionary online, Oxford scholarship online and the digital reference shelf, to name but a few.

It has been created in a way that is “designed to take full advantage of this powerful and accessible medium”. The hope is, that by getting institutions to subscribe with a lower price, more will continue to do so, rather than less subscribing at a higher rate.

Managing director of OUP’s journals division claims “our prices are much lower than those of our competitors, so we think they provide good value for money”.

£34m is being invested into the current revision programme for new words. This is a way for the press to stay in the in news with the word of the year Oxford was among the first to come up with word of the year, this year the word being ‘post-truth’ This is vital to them, as it keeps the current and talked about.

The future

“The role of the scholarly publisher is changing fundamentally. It will no longer be enough to offer content you can read to aid your research. Publishers will need to offer content you have to read.” Dominic Byatt

Byatt, publisher and senior commissioning editor suggests that this is where scholarly presses are failing, as “the quantity of essential content is limited”.

There is nothing that Publishers can do to stop the progress that is being made by online websites and digital platforms.

“if you aim to create a shared culture using shared symbols, those symbols, no matter how detailed, must be consistent. It applies not just to the alphabet, but also to how books are built, and the way they work. It’s a very subtle art”

“Scholarly publishers have always served academic constituencies by publishers in what might be called an ‘inner trial’ manner works by scholar in a discipline directed at the same discipline. but increasingly there will be arise a need both to publish intertribal (to scholars in other disciplines) and also to serve as a bullhorn for thoughtful empirical work in debate that has become muddled by a rising drone of white noise” Niko Pfund- OUP USA

The fact is that there is nothing OED or any University press for that matter can do to slow down the process of digitisation.

What they can do however is embrace it, embrace the fact that there will always be a revolution of new technology.

The so-called apocalypse of print has been blow slightly out of proportion. During a talk on the state of publishing within the last and within the next five years, Alistair Horne stated that the people who once stated that the death of print was about to occur, are now “eating their words”.Digitisation has not been as successful as people once thought. As Michael Bhaskar states, “publishing, famously, is always in crisis”, therefore, why is this crisis any different?


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