The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary introduces a significant innovation in dictionary publishing. For the first time, the popularly priced standard edition of the dictionary is not a print product alone.
Each copy is bundled with a CD-ROM edition and a one-year subscription to Merriam-Webster Online, a premium Web site offering exclusive access to the online edition and other reference sources, all built atop the same database.
Nothing like this has been done before in dictionary publishing, and for good reasons, known as "the three C's": cost, cannibalization, and cross-platform development.
Cost for a dictionary is usually thought of as PB&B–paper, printing, and binding–but we would now be adding CD-ROM replication and insertion costs.
Cannibalization is the very real possibility that, while increasing the attractiveness and sales potential of one product, another product suffers as a result. In this case, sales of the standalone CD-ROM, and the new subscription-based Web site, would theoretically be at risk.
Cross-platform (i.e., cross-media) development is simultaneously building multiple electronic products using the same content database. This term is often applied to software development, such as creating a single product that runs on both Windows and Macintosh platforms. We faced this, plus we had the added challenge of building completely new print and online products.
In our view, however, the three C's are trumped by a fourth C: convergence. Coincidentally, "convergence" has a new definition in the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. It is "the merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole."
Convergence has variously been seen as the Holy Grail or the broken promise of the information age. At Merriam-Webster, convergence was a natural evolution. We have been print publishers since the 1830s, CD-ROM publishers since the 1980s, and Web publishers since the 1990s.
With the new 11th edition, we are bringing our three publishing programs together in a single compelling consumer package. Our perspective on cross-media publishing is shaped by our online experience.
This began in the mid-1990s, when we introduced free access to the Collegiate Dictionary at our Web site, Merriam-Webster Online. While the site has become extremely popular, receiving more than 75 million page views a month, sales of the print edition have not been diminished by the heavy Internet traffic.
READERS CROSS MEDIA
In fact, many people say they regularly use both the Web site and the book. Indeed, the same person who uses the online edition at work during the day will use the print edition at home, and the CD-ROM version on a notebook PC when traveling.
This cross-media reader led us to embrace a phrase introduced by the book and Web designer Richard Saul Wurman. We live, Wurman says, in an "Age of Also", where there is no best way to access information, but rather, many good ways.
We agree. We have found few people who want to access their dictionary exclusively through the Web or CD. But many people who depend on the print version of their dictionary also want Web and CD-ROM access.
Another important aspect in our thinking is an appreciation that the print dictionary, and especially the hardcover desk dictionary, is itself a sophisticated piece of technology.
All of its features—the thumb notching, page design, typography, blackness of the ink, whiteness of the paper—combine to facilitate and ease access to the printed database.
There are more than 1 million separate pieces of information in the Collegiate Dictionary, yet most users can find the single item of information they're after in less than 30 seconds.
Put simply, the print dictionary is a incredibly well-engineered product that works incredibly well. As one of our editors pointed out, it is the original handheld device.
These thoughts were in our minds as we began thinking about what new features the 11th edition should have. We wanted to answer the question, what should the ideal dictionary look like?
The answer, it turns out, is that the ideal dictionary is not so much a single product as it is a database access tool. And access should be available in whatever forms customers prefer.
We settled on three popular database access models: print, CD-ROM, and online (although dedicated handheld devices and e-book editions from licensees were also part of the plan). Here was a reasonable approximation of the ideal 21st century dictionary, and we could build it now.
But what about those C words? The first C word, cost, was a problem, albeit a manageable one. The first print run was 500,000 copies, so setup costs could be spread over a large number of copies.
We would develop a CD-ROM edition for standalone sales anyway, so extra development costs associated with the bundled CD-ROM would be shared with the print version. Plus, manufacturing costs for CD-ROMs at high volume are quite low.
We have the ability in-house to develop full-featured Web sites at a relatively low cost. The marginal cost of delivering Web access to additional users is relatively low if you already have a Web business, as we do.
CUTTING CD-ROM COSTS
The tricky part: getting the CD-ROM into the book at an affordable price. New technology helped. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary is manufactured at Quebecor World's Versailles, Ky., plant.
Shortly before this project arrived for production, Quebecor World installed new machinery for automatically inserting and binding CD-ROMs into books. Thanks to this new equipment, the time and cost for CD insertion were less than half that of a manual process.
The second C word is cannibalization. Here we followed a simple principle: create the products people want. That means it is better to cannibalize your own products than to have a competitor cannibalize them.
Accordingly, we created a range of products, each designed to appeal to a different kind of reader: the bundled version for trade distribution, a print-only edition for some institutional sales, a more fully featured CD-ROM for sale in software channels, and standalone subscriptions for the new Web site.
Do these versions compete with each other? Absolutely. Have we sacrificed some margin in making this bundle available? Probably.
But sooner or later some hungry publisher willing to sacrifice profit margin for market share would exploit this same opportunity. We decided that it is better to be the one who makes the bold move than be the one who has to respond to it.
Finally, there was the cross-platform development challenge, which can be best described as having to create three integrally related products that will roll out the door on the same day.
The actual number of products was even higher, because there would be three versions of the CD-ROM, as well as licensed products for e-book readers and handheld devices.
But in the end, it all worked. By the end of the first week of July, we had launched a print edition, a CD-ROM edition, a new Web site, a handheld edition from Franklin Electronic Publishers, and downloadable e-book versions from Franklin and Palm Digital Media.
To the best of our knowledge, no reference work has ever been launched on so many platforms at the same time. It's possible the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is the first title of any kind to have a simultaneous, massively cross-media launch.
Surprisingly, and for better or worse, our effort was not assisted by any new development platform or brilliant insights into cross-media development. The publishing technologies exist today to make cross-media development and manufacturing possible, but the tools are not mature enough to make the job easy.
In our experience, successful projects are accomplished only by sticking with three standard principles, all well known to the industry. First, rely on proven technology. For all the media platforms we targeted, we used technology that had already been well tested on previous projects.
THE DATA LYNCHPIN
At the heart of our products is the data. We have been maintaining data in generically tagged files since the late 1980s, and the tagging structure of the Collegiate Dictionary has not changed significantly in 10 years.
The tagging structure was designed specifically to support print and electronic outputs, and both our print and electronic product development staffs, and our licensees, are familiar with it.
The only new technology that we adopted was the XMetal XML editor from Corel Corp., in Ottawa, which we used for capturing revision keystrokes. We were pleasantly surprised by the XMetal editor, as its user-friendly interface allowed us to keyboard revisions faster than ever before, and certainly faster than we anticipated.
For the print edition, the tagged files were delivered to Thomas Technology Solutions Inc., Horsham, Pa., a typesetting company we have been working with since the early 1970s. They set the type, composed the pages in Xyvision (from Xyvision Enterprise Solutions Inc., Reading, Mass.), and delivered the PostScript files to Quebecor World for direct-to-plate printing.
Thomas Tech has been composing Collegiate Dictionary pages from generically tagged files using Xyvision since 1999; the print technology is quite stable. The CD-ROM version was created with development tools based on an old but stable C++ programming platform we have used since 1995.
We previously planned to build some upgraded features into our CD-ROM product, but we arranged to introduce most of these in a new release of another CD-ROM scheduled for 2002.
By the time we created the Collegiate Dictionary's 11th edition CD-ROM, almost all of the C++ code was cooked and tested. Similarly, the fundamental technology for the Web edition was well established through seven years of providing an online dictionary on our Internet site.
That said, creating the electronic editions still required additional work. While the generic tagging supports electronic output, much data conversion had to be done. Work was also needed on features unique to the electronic editions, such as audio pronunciations and full-color art.
This brings us to our second basic principle for cross-media publishing: Begin the planning process as early as possible. We made the decision to have multiple simultaneous editions more than two years before the launch, and planning for all aspects of the project began at that time.
One crucial issue was determining the date for turning over fully edited text files to the electronic group for conversion. Thanks to early and plentiful discussions, a schedule was developed that met everybody's requirements.
We would save time by writing sed (UNIX steam editor) scripts to do much of the conversion, but time had to be allocated for tasks that could be only performed by humans. These include audio recording, insertion of art tags, proofreading, and other kinds of checking.
Ultimately, we were able to make changes to the text files as late as March 1, 2003 (we managed to enter the new South Korean president who took office on Feb. 25), and still deliver a golden master for production by April 15, 2003.
Planning was also critical for the CD-ROM manufacturing. To make the schedule work, CD-ROM manufacturing had to be accomplished between the April 15 delivery of the golden master and May 1, when the books were to be cased in and ready for CD-ROM insertion.
For this we relied on Failsafe Media Co., Lake Zurich, Ill. Thanks to sufficient advance planning, they were able to deliver more than 300,000 CD-ROMs within the two-week period.
The third principle: Maintain good communication and close coordination among the text creation, print production, electronic production, and manufacturing teams.
We achieved this, in part, through periodic meetings and reports that reviewed schedules and task lists. More important, however, was focusing everyone's attention on the shared goal of simultaneously launching a cross-media publication.
We have worked to build a culture of cooperation, collaboration, and respect for the needs of others at Merriam-Webster. In this atmosphere, managers with concerns raise them early. The concerns are listened to, and creative solutions sought. In the end, everyone shares the credit. And that's how the job gets done.
Publishing cross-media products is a challenge; one we all would probably avoid if we could. But some books, and especially reference books such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, exist in the Age of Also.
As such, the decision to produce these titles cross-media can't be avoided. Readers want access to these titles and their data in multiple forms, across multiple publishing platforms.
Successful publishers will find ways to meet that need, despite the dearth of end-to-end cross-media publishing tools.
John M. Morse is president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc. He can be reached at President@Merriam-Webster.com.