The Dictionary Market: Getting Your Words' Worth
On Oct. 16, 2012, language fanatics everywhere will be celebrating a milestone in the history of the dictionary: the 254th birthday of Noah Webster, who in 1828 famously published "An American Dictionary of the English Language," the first dictionary to ever bear the Merriam-Webster name. We wonder what Mr. Webster would think of the dictionary landscape today, which includes digital delivery, community-created online dictionaries (and even a crowdsourcing initiative from the U.K.'s Collins). In honor of Mr. Webster's birthday, Book Business is taking a look at how two key players in the market today are dealing with the industry's ongoing advances into the digital age.
"I think dictionaries are in a very fraught position," says Katherine Martin, the editorial head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, when asked to describe the overall mood pervading the dictionary business today. "Because on the one hand, we're on the cutting edge: We're so open to changes in the nature of publishing. But at the same time, the [public's] notion of the dictionary is sort of as a fusty, tweed-jacketed, bearded preserver of the English language as it has been, and always will be. But the truth of the matter," she adds, "is that there is no English language as it has been and always will be, because it's changing all the time, just as the dictionary is changing."
If there's one name among dictionaries that consumers tend to think of as "fusty" and "tweed-jacketed," it's almost certainly the Oxford English Dictionary, a 20-volume set that retails for roughly $1,000, and which has been referred to variously as "the greatest work in dictionary-making ever undertaken" and "one of the wonders of the world."
But even the OED is now fully ensconced in the electronic age. Due to the overwhelming popularity of its online version, the dictionary's third edition—known as OED3—will almost certainly never be printed. "I think we all know we're past the print dictionary's heyday," Martin admits. "But the desire of the public for quality, authoritative lexical content hasn't changed. And it's not likely to change. If anything, the electronic age—and all these devices we carry around, and all the different ways we use and experience text—that makes the desire for dictionary content even more pervasive."
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.