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Encyclopedia Now Free on Internet

October 19, 1999

CHICAGO (AP) _ The Encyclopaedia Britannica, afraid of becoming just a dusty relic of the pre-computer age, is making its 32-volume set available for free on the Internet.

From a-ak (an ancient East Asian music) to Zywiec (a town in Poland), the Rolls Royce of encyclopedias was there in its entirety starting Tuesday at the company’s retooled Web site, www.britannica.com.

The 231-year-old company dumped door-to-door sales three years ago and hopes now to make money selling advertising on its site. The move may have been inevitable in an era when students doing homework are more likely to get their information from a computer than from a book.

The privately held company won’t reveal revenue figures, but sales of its print volumes _ which cost $1,250 a set and are now sold mostly to schools and other institutions _ have seen a steep decline, admitted Don Yannias, chief executive of Britannica.com.

In an Internet-dominated market, ``you have to be free to be relevant,″ said Jorge Cauz, senior president of Britannica.com Inc., the new company that holds the Chicago encyclopedia publisher’s digital properties.

Free encyclopedias are only part of the lure. The Web site also will offer current information from newspapers, news agencies and 70 magazines as well as e-mail, weather forecasts and financial market reports.

Analysts who follow Britannica say its belated but aggressive moves into the electronic world, including some significant success with CD-ROM sales over the past three years, just may work.

``They’re clearly not going to be able to recoup their revenues in the short term,″ said Aram Sinnreich of Jupiter Communications Inc. in New York. ``But the move just might save them in the long run.″

The early response was promising. Britannica said the site received millions of hits Tuesday, temporarily blocking access for some. The company said it expected to clear up the problems by the end of the day.

For generations, Britannica set the standard for encyclopedias. The leather-bound books were sold door-to-door, via direct mail, or at shopping mall kiosks.

At its peak in 1989, Britannica had estimated revenue of $650 million and a worldwide sales force of 7,500. But with direct sales abandoned, the staff shrank as low as 280 and is now about 400.

The company lost ground badly after it spurned Microsoft, which went on to team up with discount encyclopedia publisher Funk & Wagnalls to produce a colorful, multimedia encyclopedia on CD-ROM in 1993. Britannica’s own CD-ROM version, released a year later, was low on graphics and did not fare as well.

Britannica became the first encyclopedia available on the Web in 1994, but there was an $85-a-year subscription fee.

Since Swiss investor Jacob Safra bought Britannica in 1996, the company has been making a bigger push for the electronic market. The online subscription fees were dropped and CD-ROM sales began to account for the bulk of revenue.

``Before we were more backward-looking _ looking back at historical events,″ Yannias said. ``Now we can be right on the brink of current events, incorporating the news with the foundations of history.″

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