by Tom Gilson (Associate Editor, Against the Grain)
and Katina Strauch (Editor, Against the Grain)
ATG: Mr. Pappas, please tell us a bit about your career path. How does one get to be the Executive Editor and Chief Development Officer of one of the most legendary names in publishing history?
TP: My background is in history — American and European, with a specialty in Russian studies — and I’ve found that broad interests like these are well suited for a general encyclopedia’s wide swath of coverage. Plus, I routinely read encyclopedias as a child — I loved the serendipity that encyclopedias offer — so then working for one seemed like a natural fit professionally, and very rewarding personally.
ATG: Encyclopaedia Britannica recently celebrated its 250th anniversary and both CNN (https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2019/06/27/100-club-encyclopedia-britannica.cnn) and CBS Sunday Morning have done wonderful stories about it. How did these opportunities come about? What was it like being the center of attention during a nationally broadcast news program? What has the reaction been to this nationwide exposure?
TP: Britannica’s historic 250th anniversary has generated a lot of attention around the world, and both CBS Sunday Morning and CNN have nicely reported on the occasion with TV coverage. CNN incorporated its coverage of Britannica in its “100 Club,” (see above link) which is a program dedicated to companies 100 years and older and with global appeal. The response has been wonderful.
ATG: A number of fascinating facts were disclosed during the CBS broadcast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2g4oXAtIlU), but we were hoping that you could tell us more about two of our favorites — the “Answer Girls” and the “Whole Set Club”?
TP: The “Answer Girls” refers to the all-female Library Research Service that Britannica created in 1936. Beginning that year, buyers of the print set received 50 gummed coupons that entitled them to ask 50 questions of Britannica over a ten-year period. In return, the buyer received a personalized report summarizing the latest information on the topic they asked about, all researched and typed up by one of Britannica’s “Answer Girls.” The women were all college-educated, some with graduate degrees, and at its height, the department had 100 women issuing upwards of 150,000 reports annually. This department was phenomenally successful, and newspapers and magazines like Glamour routinely highlighted the department, often with headlines — reflecting, of course, the common perception of working women at that time — like “Brains, Beauty, and Britannica.” In fact, the department has long been considered the inspiration for the 1957 Spencer Tracy – Katharine Hepburn movie The Desk Set, in which Hepburn plays the director of an all-female reference library tasked with researching answers to a wide assortment of questions — the very task of the women of Britannica’s Library Research Service.
Simply put, the department was a public relations bonanza, keeping the Britannica brand alive during the difficult days of the Great Depression and reflecting one of the many ways that Britannica has met the public’s need for information through the centuries. It reveals a truth about publishing that’s just as apt now: consumers need to be dealt with on their terms, meaning information needs to be delivered to them in the manner they desire. This is especially true today, in the digital age.
The “Whole-Set Club” is what I term those special folks who have read an entire Britannica print set, and those hearty souls have included famous writers such as George Bernard Shaw, who read everything in Britannica except the science articles, and C.S. Forester, who supposedly read his Britannica print set an astounding three times. He reportedly could read at a rate of 4,000 words per minute.
ATG: From your perspective, what are the most significant, landmark accomplishments in Encyclopaedia Britannica’s publishing history? In what ways has Britannica most influenced the modern world of information gathering and delivery?
TP: Encyclopaedia Britannica’s First Edition (1768-71) was a marketing marvel, offering both quick definitional information as well as long academic treatises, all conveniently packaged in a mere three volumes, in an easy-to-use A-Z format, with helpful cross-references and 160 detailed illustrations. It proved how successfully information could be commodified and mass communicated, and it sowed the seeds of the publishing phenomenon called Britannica that continues to this day, 250 years later, in digital form. Britannica continued this pioneering spirit in the digital age, creating the first digital encyclopedia for LexisNexis in 1981, the first multimedia CD in 1989, and launching the first encyclopedia on the Internet in 1994, seven years before Wikipedia.
ATG: Encyclopaedia Britannica announced the end of the print set in 2012 and is now digital. Can you explain the economic model that has allowed Britannica to remain viable? What other factors have enabled you to make the successful transition from print to digital?
TP: Britannica has long listened to consumers and taken note of the kind of information they want to receive, and so when readers in the late 18th century began increasingly reading biographies for their information on the world past and present, Britannica shocked traditionalists by incorporating biographies in the encyclopedia. Though this novel type of entry cost Britannica its editor, who resigned in protest, Britannica’s owners had sagely discerned the way the marketing winds were blowing, and the same holds true for Britannica today — we deliver quality content, content the public wants, and in the manner the public wants to receive it.
Moreover, in the age of fake news and rampant misinformation on the Internet, Britannica’s value proposition as perhaps the largest fact-checked, general-reference database in the world is only growing in importance. Our encyclopedias, offered at differentiated reading levels, along with a slew of supplemental classroom tools and products, are now used in schools in 88 countries, and our combined websites are generating more than five billion page views annually.
ATG: How has the availability of free online resources, in particular Wikipedia, impacted Encyclopaedia Britannica’s place in the information market? Why should researchers turn to Britannica rather than Wikipedia? What do you offer that Wikipedia does not?
TP: Sites like Wikipedia, as well as many blogs and social media sites, that offer answers to questions of little critical importance (when you really don’t need to know for sure whether an answer is really completely right) will likely always be popular. After all, their content is free and they’re fast, and there’s little consequence if they’re wrong. But consumers, including students and teachers, are growing increasingly savvy, and they no longer are simply enamored with mere access to the millions of words of undifferentiated content that search engines like Google deliver up in seconds. That’s why verified, reliable, curated content like that offered by Britannica is only growing in importance in an age of fake news and misinformation. That’s why an increasing number of companies (and the ministries of education of countries around the world) want to partner with Britannica, because they realize the importance of reliable information and the companies that produce it.
ATG: However, you still do some print publishing. We noticed that Britannica’s 250th anniversary collector’s edition — your final yearbook — is a print product. In fact, you are listed as the author. Can you tell us about that project?
TP: We produce an occasional print product, here and there, but for all intents and purposes we’re a 100 percent-digital company today. Our special one-volume collector’s edition of Britannica — the Encyclopaedia Britannica Anniversary Edition: 250 Years of Excellence, 1768-2018 — was a print product because it was the final edition of the print yearbooks that we’ve published since 1938. It was a pleasure and an honor to edit the final edition in this hallowed tradition.
ATG: As you look into the future, what adjustments do you anticipate Encyclopaedia Britannica having to make going forward? Do you envision any new services or products? Where do you see Encyclopaedia Britannica in the next few years?
TP: Britannica is thriving today, with products sold and used in 88 countries and contracts with companies and countries on every continent save Antarctica. And we’re moving into the realm of voice-activated games and appliances, powered by artificial intelligence. As Britannica has proven over 250 years, it’s not the medium (print) that made our products special, but rather our message and manner of producing and delivering reliable, verifiable, expert content. Our methods of publishing may have changed since 1768, but our mission hasn’t.