Richard Charkin, via Publishing Perspectives last September, provided A Very Short History of the New Oxford English Dictionary, in which he describes the revolutionary digitization of the Dictionary in the eighties, a process in which he was intimately involved. It turned out to be a process which transformed the economics of the ancient cost center.

Whether or not a new edition of the OED will ever in fact be printed, we have to admit that the digital version, constantly updated, has become the most important bit of the project. Print sales of the current edition of course continue, but the project as a whole has changed over the last forty years from just-print to print-with-digital, to digital-with-print now. It’s possible it’s en route for a fully digital life style, but down the road a bit I’d bet that hard copies will be available via print-on-demand. However the ease (and constant updating) of the online version makes getting up to consult a large and heavy volume seem unduly cumbersome. Given that we now tend to write everything on our computers, having access in the same space to the greatest dictionary in the world is just overwhelmingly convenient.

As Charkin puts it “There will probably never be a third printed edition, but the online edition is in great health, builds every year, extends our understanding of English, our linguistic and cultural history, and stands as one of the great digital projects of all time.” I’d go further and ask: will there ever be something called a 3rd edition? An online project can evolve continuously, adding new material, correcting errors, updating the old on a daily basis. Thinking of 1st, 2nd, 3rd editions is now quaintly old fashioned: publishers issue a new edition of a book when changes have become sufficient for them to be able to justify printing a fresh, revised book with a realistic belief that their installed base of readers will feel the need to plunk their money down for the new edition. Obviously you can’t have a new edition every week, but in terms of content, with an online constantly updated project you can effectively have one every day on which any change is made to the database. It will be interesting to see if traditionalist opinion demands that there will ever be a moment at which OUP declares: “OK, today’s online recension is actually now going to be called ‘Third Edition'”. Sounds so silly that I bet it never happens.

Clearly the earlier you hook ’em the less likely they are to be able to get the hook out of their mouths. Make students dependent on the OED, and they’ll guarantee your subscription income in years to come. The Bookseller (link via Book Business) tells us that OUP have announced that they’ll be giving free access to UK primary and secondary schools.

See also my earlier post OED which I wrote while still employed by OUP, and at a time (2012) when the 20-volume set was being reprinted. The post contains a description of the manufacturing process for the two-volume, Compact Edition reproducing in miniature the entire 20-volume set.