Investing Millions: Merriam-Webster’s John Morse on why the costly “Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary” will pay off.
Merriam-Webster’s President and Publisher John Morse likes to think of the reference giant not just as a publisher, but as an information provider. “You have to know that your core competency is your ability to develop new content for which there is [a] clear and present need,” he says of the company, which he has led for more than a decade.
One of Merriam-Webster’s latest endeavors in developing new content is the recent introduction of its “Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary”—an entirely new dictionary created by Merriam-Webster’s editorial staff, and the first advanced learner’s dictionary from an American publisher. The 1,994-page dictionary features in-depth coverage of contemporary English vocabulary, grammar and usage, including 16 pages of full-color art.
John Morse spoke with Book Business Extra about the process and business strategy behind introducing the “Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary” into the marketplace, a title which he says represents the future for not only Merriam-Webster, but for all reference publishers.
Book Business Extra: What market are you trying to reach with this new dictionary?
John Morse: This is a dictionary really designed to meet the needs of people other than native speakers of English. That is what we’re going after. I don’t think that means just the international market. One of the clear demographic trends we’re really aware of is the increasing portion of the domestic market [for which] English is not their first language. That has gone above 15 percent. … Clearly, this is a move to better serve international markets. [However,] it has become more apparent to us that this is going to be a significant part of our domestic strategy, too.
Extra: Why did you pursue the “Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary”?
Morse: … This has just been self-evident for us that this book was needed. A billion people around the world are learning English as a second language or foreign language everyday. It’s greater than people that have English as their first language. The market is growing, and the market is huge. The question is, “Why haven’t we already done it?” The answer is that it’s a huge job. It took us years and years and years and millions of dollars to create. That, to some degree, is an aspect of reference publishing that makes it different than other forms of publishing. The barriers of entry to move into a new product are staggering. If you want to be a player in the reference field, the investment is just a tremendous amount. … What was required here was not our decision of should or shouldn’t we. Of course we should. It was, “Were we really ready to dedicate ourselves and our dollars to a strategy where we spend a decade to create this dictionary?”
Extra: How was the online component of this new dictionary—http://www.LearnersDictionary.com—developed to supplement the print version?
Morse: … We try to create the best possible print experience and online experience. It’s up to the user to determine what experience is more pleasing and satisfying—with the fervent hope that they find that both are satisfying and [they take] advantage of both. It’s not the case where we try to outsmart the user somehow. It’s not, “… If you want this feature, you have to come here and interact in a different way.” Both have to be as good as they possibly can—let the user decide. What I think we’ve learned, so far at least, is that whatever publisher creates the best online experience for its products will probably get the most market share for its print product. You can’t drive people to buy your print product by holding back something from your online product.
Extra: How big is online usage for Merriam-Webster?
Morse: That is the fastest-growing part of our business. … [Merriam-Webster.com] averages 100 million page views a month. … Clearly, it’s becoming a dominant way that people use their dictionaries. I’m glad we were in at the start and have established a presence. It’s caused us to learn new tricks. If you asked me 20 years ago what I didn’t have to understand and master, it would have been advertising and sales. One would never imagine that you would have advertising in a dictionary. One does indeed expect to have them today. We’ve had to develop a new skill set, which didn’t come easily.
An interesting, unintended benefit of (being online) is that it has increased our brand recognition in international markets. With the online dictionary, we were offering a compelling free-dictionary presence in [English-speaking] countries that didn’t have their own dictionaries online. We were picking up the European and Canadian markets. We began to start seeing new native speakers even if they had not used our print dictionary.
Extra: How does this project represent the future focus for the company?
Morse: I see Merriam with an opportunity to expand business along three dimensions. One of the oldest growth strategies [at the company], really going back to the 19th century, is to grow it from being a domestic company to being more international.
… There’s two other dimensions that are equally as important, beginning with moving from print platforms to electronic platforms. That’s a strategy that we have really had in place for the last 10 years or more. We made the decision back in the 1990s that we would take all the content of the “[Merriam-Webster] Collegiate [Dictionary],” our biggest source of income, and we would put the content online for free. A scary thought at the time, but my thought was that print would not go away. I thought it was very important for us to be [online] as a way of winning new customers and to ensure to new dictionary users that Merriam product was available wherever they wanted it, and that we were dedicated to providing content wherever.
The third dimension of growth and what we are launching right now is that if we are really to succeed now in international markets, we really need new content. That’s the “Learner’s” content—content designed especially for English as a second language [speakers]. When we say that this is the beginning of a new kind of publishing, to meet the needs of non-English speakers, it will allow us to really fill out those three growth dimensions. … What I have told people here in the company is that we’re not just launching a new product, but we’re launching a new future for Merriam-Webster.
Extra: In what other forms will we see this “new kind of publishing”?
Morse: First off, we know we need smaller abridgments of [the “Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary”], both domestically and international. If this is a dictionary we’re putting into the hands of students, we know price is very important. We need to do a first product of this price ($29.95) to introduce Merriam-Webster to teachers, so they know the authority and depth of knowledge we bring to this area of publishing. It will be the smaller and lower-priced products that sell better. … We also have to create books that are more localized for specific markets. We have to create semi-[bilingual] versions. There has to be something in there that the native speaker of another language recognizes. … The third piece is [that] this has to be licensed for various kinds of use in handheld devices around the world. Particularly in Asian markets, handheld devices that hold multiple dictionaries dominate the reference market.