The Dictionary Market: Getting Your Words' Worth
Scores of our generation's most celebrated authors have famously waxed poetic about the joys of using the original 20-volume "Oxford English Dictionary." David Foster Wallace, for instance, had a well-documented obsession with the OED. Simon Winchester wrote not one, but two nonfiction books about the dictionary's history. Even J.R.R. Tolkien, who briefly worked on the OED (he was assigned to the letter "W"), spoke fondly of his time there.
But the simple fact is this: When I need to know the correct spelling of, say, "onomatopoeia," or "conscientious" or "hierarchy," there's a decent chance I'll be heading straight to Dictionary.com. Or to be a bit more specific: I'll type the word into my web browser and, after tapping my 'Enter' key, I'll almost certainly be taken straight to Dictionary.com. If you've ever used Google to look up a word, you know exactly what I'm talking about. According to Lisa Sullivan-Cross, Dictionary.com's vice president of marketing and general manager of learning, the site services more than 50 million users each month, and its mobile apps have now been downloaded an astonishing 25 million times.
After all, as John Morse, the president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc., is fond of saying, people today tend to be "undiscerning" in their use of dictionaries. Casual online word-searchers today, he says, are beholden to "the tyranny of Google."
Dictionary.com, as Morse points out, is indeed a powerful force in the world of professional lexicography. "You know," he says, "I think they were greatly helped by their name, particularly during that period when "dictionary" was one of the most-used terms on the web. ("Can you think of one other industry where this holds true?" asks Sullivan-Cross in response to Morse's comment. "Is shoes.com the No. 1 seller of shoes?")
"The dictionary business," Morse says with a sigh,"has always been really competitive. [Merriam-Webster has] been up against the biggest multinational dictionaries in the world. We're [used] to being in a competitive environment."
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."
And yet regardless of whether or not the public's organic desire for dictionary content has grown, it's certainly true that the content itself is much more ever-present today than it's ever been. Thanks to a partnership with Amazon, for instance, every Kindle e-reader comes bundled with a digital edition of the OED's stateside flagship dictionary, the "New Oxford American Dictionary." As for the online edition of the OED, it receives upwards of two million hits each month from paying subscribers. And due to relationships it has with various licensing and technology companies, content from Oxford dictionaries can now be accessed on mobile phones, handheld devices, GPS devices, various software programs, ebooks and even electronic highlighters and portable scanning translators for students learning a second language.
"And we're just scratching the surface," Martin says. "I don't know what the future holds, but I know it's going to be really cool."
As for Merriam-Webster's John Morse, he has a slightly more nuanced view of the future of dictionary content. If you truly want to understand what's happening in the dictionary business today, says Morse, you need to understand an explanatory phrase that he's been sharing for the past 15 years: The Age of Also.
The Age of Also, Morse admits, isn't a tagline of his own creation. It's an expression, he says, that comes from a speech given in 2000 by Richard Wurman—creator of the TED conference—in which Wurman predicted that during the next 10 to 15 years—The Age of Also—no single type of media would eclipse any other. Wurman's theory went on to predict that where the process of delivering and consuming information was concerned, there wouldn't be just one solution during the first decade or so of the new millennium. Instead, there would be countless numbers of solutions, all equally good. "We really embraced that [idea] to capture what we were doing in the dictionary business," Morse says. "We like to say that people use different dictionaries in different ways on different days, and we want to be there for all of those uses."
In fact, as far back as 2003, when Merriam-Webster launched that year's edition of the "Collegiate Dictionary," it was simultaneously introduced in print form, in online form, as a CD-ROM, as a handheld dictionary and in a downloadable format. The idea, according to Morse, was "to say to everyone that this is the way the world is going to go from now on, and we're ready to embrace that."
And embrace it they have, especially within the confines of every publisher's most valuable marketing tool: the Internet. Both Merriam-Webster and OED, in fact, have managed to transform websites that could have easily been dreadfully dull into electronic destinations that are educational and extraordinarily sticky. Merriam-Webster's "Ask the Editor" series, for instance, regularly presents two-minute videos that make etymology fascinating. On the OED website, images of historic documents are often used as lead-ins to teach visitors about the company's rich heritage. The Oxford University Press, meanwhile, maintains an active collection of documentary-style YouTube videos, many of them offering an insider's account of life as an OED employee.
As the OUP's Katherine Martin so eloquently puts it, "We're far from having gotten to the end of how the dictionary is going to evolve. And that's what I think is really interesting: We're not tied to the alphabetic rubric anymore. We can throw that away. People can access a definition to a word in a million ways." BB
Dan Eldridge is the editor of NAPCO's TeleRead.com.
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.