How dictionaries are adapting to the digital world with subscriptions

Oxford dictionary

Some dictionary users still want the physical product. Source: supplied.

If you’re like me and you find yourself putting your thoughts onto the page (or the digital document) with any kind of frequency, you’ll know the words don’t always flow smoothly. I came across that problem just recently. I was writing about an event I recently attended and found myself using a search that’s now second nature to me: I typed “[word] meaning” into Google.

It got me thinking that I haven’t used a physical dictionary in years. Maybe a decade. That makes sense in a world where people so often choose a good digital alternative to an analogue product, system or service. But what about the vast accumulation of intellectual property dictionary publishers own — does it remain valuable today?

The answer is of course yes. Perhaps the better question is how do publishers of the world’s great dictionaries continue to benefit from that value?

Dictionaries and thesauruses remain essential resources. And now, as long as you have an internet connection and a search engine, free definitions and synonyms are half a second away. If you ask Google about the word “digital”, for example, the top result will almost always be Google’s own definition. It comes from Oxford, which has been licensing to Google for more than a decade (it’s free to us, but Oxford aren’t left uncompensated).

Macquarie Dictionary

Source: National Library of Australia, 1981.

Now, if you want more than that standard definition — if you want the definitive history of a word, replete with uses (and use changes) over hundreds of years — you’d need the complete Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Or if you want the definitive guide to a word in Australian English, you’d need the Macquarie Dictionary. Neither the OED nor Macquarie definitions are free, but both are available online.

How? Subscriptions. These select entries are behind a paywall; you can’t simply click through to them from your search engine.

If you want access to the OED it’s £100 per year ($190). Access to the Macquarie Dictionary is $39.99 a year if you only want definitions and $49.99 a year if you want the thesaurus as well.

As someone more than happy with the definitions and synonyms I get straight to my browser, neither subscription appeals to me. In fact, I suspect most people would have neither the need nor the willingness to pay for access to the premium versions. But the strategy is actually sound. Why?

It all comes down to marketing. Individuals aren’t the target market; institutions such as libraries and schools are. When you look at it from a business-to-business, rather than a business-to-consumer angle, it all makes sense. By placing a high anchor price for individual plans (albeit with very few takers), publishers are able to better monetise their core segments.

I use the word “publishers” advisedly here. In the same way that Oxford (or more precisely Oxford University Press) is represented in search results (via the official Google definition), so is the publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, Pan Macmillan. Its Macmillan Dictionary definition is freely available; it invariably shows on the first page of search results.

What we’re seeing here is a kind of freemium model. The free version (Oxford’s Google definition and Pan Macmillan’s Macmillan dictionary definition) is limited but adequate for most. The premium version — access to the OED and Macquarie Dictionary — once only available as massive physical tomes, is available with a recurring fee, but offers the convenience of online access and the benefit of constant updates.

But I think what exists at the moment is only a starting point; much more is possible.

In the future, I expect dictionary publishers to continue working in partnership with the world’s big digital companies, bundling access to their premium volumes with apps or hardware subscriptions. In that way, individuals previously reluctant to take up a relatively high annual subscription, would get the value of, say, a desktop publishing ecosystem or an e-reader, in addition to a renowned reference book.

Dictionaries have always evolved. This shift from product to service is one more change in a long history (there are stone tablets featuring lists of words that are well over 4000 years old). The whole world has moved online, and so this move may seem simply necessary rather than transformative, but it helps to make sure we retain access to these crucial resources while their creators are rewarded for their remarkable IP.

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