Electronic and print publishing come down essentially to the same thing for John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster. "We're in the business of delivering information about the English language to users," he says. "Historically we've done it in print, and print will predominate for years to come, but we also provide information electronically."
M-W produced its first electronic product, an abridged dictionary, at the end of 1986-a small, single-purpose, handheld device about 3 1/2x5 1/2 inches. "It had a little screen that only displayed about three lines of text, so by today's standards it was fairly crude," recalls Morse, "but it was a start." In 1989, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary appeared in CD-ROM format. Morse concedes that the latter "has not been a huge commercial success. There's a strong preference on the part of customers to use a print dictionary, which is a wonderfully well-engineered product in itself."
M-W has instead developed multiple ways to capitalize electronically on the massive word database that fuels its print publications. "We're a dictionary on AOL," says Morse. "We're bundled with Britannica.com. People with Palm Pilots can get our dictionary. We have a relationship with Franklin, where our dictionary is part of its e-book reader. Current e-book platforms don't serve very well as a principal way to present a dictionary on its own." Even so, Franklin does sell an e-book of the Merriam-Webster Speaking Dictionary and Thesaurus and other M-W reference works.
"A dictionary works well as an application within the e-book reader," says Morse. "If you're reading something and find a word you don't know, you click on it and get the information you want. We have hundreds of licenses with people for different kinds of dictionary applications, such as integrating it into desktop publishing environments."
Whether print or electronic, content springs from the same database, says Morse. "It's just that electronic publishing opens opportunities that you don't have in the print world. There's the space issue. A challenge you face with print is to cram as much information as you can between two covers. We condense. We use different typefaces. Our electronic products make much less use of abbreviations. If you like delving into etymology, it's easier to do that in an electronic format because the entry is immediately deconstructed for you, not with abbreviations, but with labels. Also, you don't have to learn phonetic symbols. You click on a word and hear the pronunciation."
M-W employs specialists with electronic responsibilities, "but we try to keep everyone on a single publishing team as much as possible," notes Morse.
One area requiring electronic expertise is in the delivery of content to M-W's Web site. According to Morse, "The Web site is one of the wonderful successes of our whole publishing program. People are bound and determined to get information off the Web, and we're answering that need by putting up the full texts of both the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and the Collegiate Thesaurus for free. We get 30 million page views a month."
Asked if he fears that Web use cannibalizes print sales, Morse says flatly, "No. Our site has proven to be one of the most effective pieces of brand promotion in Merriam-Webster history. We get e-mail from people who say, 'I'm going to the store to buy your dictionary.' Especially with the problems we've had with the Webster name-why we say 'Not just Webster, Merriam-Webster'-having Merriam-Webster online emphasizes our own dictionaries."
Morse also feels that print and electronic products are mutually reinforcing. "If you establish a successful brand name in print, it helps you enter the electronic publishing field."
Expressing sanguine expectations for the future, Morse says, "This is the age of 'also.' It's not either/or. The same person who uses the Web site in the afternoon will use the print dictionary in the evening. When we market our dictionaries, we promote print, CD-ROM and Web site simultaneously in one four-color ad in places like Time or People. We have a unified message."