Big Idea: What Publishers Can Learn from the 1864 Webster's Dictionary
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The big ideas I am thinking about are actually old big ideas. They are the big ideas that underlie a remarkable dictionary published 150 years ago, the 1864 revision of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. This dictionary is noteworthy for being the dictionary that established the model for what all succeeding unabridged dictionaries would be. Its success flows from three big ideas...
Big Idea #1: Be willing to abandon previous notions of what makes a product good.
The 1864 edition of the Unabridged Dictionary was the first major revision of the dictionary after the death of Noah Webster. As such, the editors and publishers had a decision: Would they remain committed to the editorial policies and practices of Noah Webster, or would they strike out in new directions?
It was not an easy choice. They knew that there were profound problems with the dictionary as Noah left it. On the other hand, Webster was renowned as a dictionary-maker, and there were strong voices that argued against radical change.
Happily, the voices for change prevailed. The editors and publishers embraced new scholarship, introduced new features, and established new rules for how dictionary information should be presented. As a result, they embarked on one of the biggest dictionary revisions ever undertaken, crossing out much of Webster's text and essentially rewriting the dictionary.
Big Idea #2: Be willing to change the way you do things.
Up until then, dictionaries were written by just one person, whether it was Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, or others. But the scope of the 1864 edition was going to go far beyond what one person could do. So, for the first time, an entire staff of definers, editors, subject specialists, researchers, and proofreaders was assembled to take on the task. It was a daunting organizational challenge, carrying with it great costs and risks. Fortunately, an able leader was found, and a seemingly impossible project was completed within a few years of his appointment.
And so it was that a new production model for dictionaries was invented, one that all future dictionaries would use, including the Oxford English Dictionary, which was then in its planning stages.
Big Idea #3: Be willing to invest in times of economic uncertainty.
A revision of this scope requires a huge investment, which the publishers were willing to do, even though this was a time of great economic uncertainty. The early years of the project were marked by financial panics, crop failures, and widespread bankruptcies. And to point out the obvious, most of the work was done while the Civil War was raging.
The whole project took a lot of guts, but the gamble paid off. The dictionary was a complete success. It restored the reputation of Webster's dictionary, which was beginning to tarnish; it won out decisively over its closest rival, and it secured the company's future for generations to come.
The three big ideas of course boil down to one, expressed by several writers of that period: "Be bold, be bold, and everywhere be bold."
John Morse is the president and publisher of Merriam-Webster.
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