Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Goes Digital, Searchable, and Free

From the press release:

The third edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the definitive reference work in the field, will be released online later this year by the newly-formed ESF, Ltd, in association with Victor Gollancz, the SF & Fantasy imprint of the Orion Publishing Group, whose support will enable the text to be available free to all users. This initial “beta” version, containing about three-quarters of the total projected content, will be unveiled in conjunction with Gollancz’s celebrations of its 50th anniversary as a science fiction publisher.

The first edition of the Encylopedia, whose founder and general editor was Peter Nicholls, appeared in 1979, and contained over 700,000 words. A second edition, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, appeared in 1993 and contained over 1.3 million words. Both editions won the Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Convention, in addition to numerous other honours.

The beta version of the third edition will contain some 3 million words, including about 12,000 entries and well over 100,000 internal links. The entries cover every area of science fiction, including authors, illustrators, movies, music, games, and fanzines. The text will be completed, through monthly updates, by the end of 2012.

The decision to go digital and free is generating considerable buzz. Given how much previous editions have sold for, it’s clear that the SFE has plenty of revenue potential. The question is how, or whether, that potential will be realized when the content is available and searchable online for free (in the style of other reference websites like Merriam-Webster’s dictionary site). Managing editor Graham Sleight dropped me a note to say that he’s seeking views on whether people would want to buy the SFE in print, e-book, or app format, and he invites Genreville readers to respond either in comments here or with tweets to @sfencyclopedia. I hope you’ll comment here; I’m very interested to know what you think.

24 thoughts on “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Goes Digital, Searchable, and Free

  1. Chris

    Much as I love my print copy of the SFE, I’d prefer to see the next edition as an app, preferably with wiki-like features. An app has the benefit of being much more portable than the print edition, and more functional than an e-book (since it could easily allow for easy searching and linking between entries).

    As for the wiki-like features, one of the inherent weaknesses of the SFE is that it is published at fairly long intervals. The last edition came out in 1993, and the genre has seen a LOT of changes since then. By opening the SFE to crowd-sourcing content (like Wikipedia or TVTropes), there’s a greater likelihood that it will stay current for longer.

    I for one would have no problem paying a book-level price for an app with that wealth of content and functionality.

    And while I’m idly wishing, I’d love to see the Encyclopedia of Fantasy updated and available in the same format.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      Don’t know about wiki-like features, but I believe they’re planning to update the content regularly.

    2. BC Armstrong

      Please, please spare us from wiki features. We don’t need an endlessly metastasizing profusion of badly written articles on every chowderhead’s pet, invented sub-sub-sub-sub-genre of the genre, as we get with Wikipedia articles on pop culture.

  2. Paul Riddell

    Free? Online? Aw, nuts. And here I was, looking forward to the spectacle of the last print version, where the copy in the local bookstore was perused by any number of wannabes and never-weres (myself included) to see any mention of their names or publications, before being put back on the shelf unpurchased. Ah well: at least there’s still the occasional copy of Locus at Barnes & Noble for that sort of action.

  3. James

    This is great news! I’d be interested in an e-book or app for purchase of the SFE, but obviously at a reduced price compared to the print version.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      That’s not obvious to me at all; for a reference work of this scope, I assume that the cost of the editors’ and contributors’ labor and time is far higher than the cost of materials, so I’d expect all the editions to be priced fairly similarly.

      1. Chris

        Having it available as an app or an e-book raises an interesting question about the economics of the SFE as a reference work. I suspect many folks only used the print edition at their local libraries due to cost and size considerations, so I wonder if a digital (weightless) edition will broaden the SFE’s audience to a point where the price point can be lowered without the P&L getting hammered? It’d be nice to see the SFE benefit from some long tail economics.

  4. Paul

    Ebook, ebook, ebook. Since I’ve picked up the nook I download or purchase all my reference materials for my business, my hobbies and my writing. Oh, but I can always fall back onto the first edition I have in my office.

  5. Adam

    I would pay for pretty much any format.
    Online access would be great, but so would a beautiful print version.

    I think what would be best would be to buy a print edition, along with which purchase I would get web access to an e-version that would have rolling updates.

  6. Ken

    I would love a hard copy to be made available. There’s real pleasure to be had in just perusing the pages.

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  9. Greg

    I need this in app form. Ebook may suffice, but as a reference book, WebOS and/or Android would be waaaaay more useful.

  10. Ed B

    I have both the 1st & 2nd print editions of the SFE. My preference would be for an e-book edition of the 3rd edition, but I would certainly take advantage of the on-line version. I think this is a great idea.

  11. Odette

    I’d like the option of buying the ebook and/or a hard copy as well. It would be nice to dip into the hard copy at home and the ebook whenever I’m out. This is in addition to the free online version of course.

  12. Laura Miller

    As someone who edited a vaguely similar (but MUCH less comprehensive) volume (“The Salon Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors”) and who is occasionally bugged about the updated edition that will never happen, I’d say the ideal model is a modestly-priced app ($10) with an annual, low-ish update fee ($1 to $2). If they can sell enough copies, that could work well, but the problem is that consumers make no distinction between some $2 game that took maybe a month to produce and requires few updates after the initial programming and a book.

    What Rose said: These books are incredibly labor intensive. Five hundred words of text might require research along the lines of, say, 20 books. How long does it take YOU to read 20 books? Conservatively, we’re talking about maybe 160 hours — that’s a month at a full-time (40/hours week) job, even before the contributor starts writing.

    People consistently undervalue writers’ work by assuming that all writing is more or less the same. Sure, it may take most of us an hour to write a 500-word note to a friend, but that’s entirely different from writing an informed mini-essay on a literary topic. The paper and binding are a tiny fraction of the expense in producing a book like this. And any updates will continue to cost real money on the editorial side.

    The big problem with an app is that it’s not accessible to those without smart phones or tablets, and then there are the levies charged by entities like Apple’s app store, which wants their 30 percent cut for any in-app sales. Some kind of subscription really does seem like the best model, but there are so many factors that make such a system difficult, not least of which is ill-informed consumer price-resistance.

  13. Brent Mendelsohn

    Will certainly buy the print edition if there is one, if not will buy the ebook if and only if it’s available in a device-independent DRM free format. If both were available, would buy a bundle deal where you get the physical copy as well as a PDF (the sort that O’Reilly etc.offer now) if that was offered No interest in an app. Can’t wait. Same applies for the Fantasy Encyclopedia – hope that has not been forgotten!

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  15. Chris Lemon

    This is awesome news. I’ve been moving all of my reading to a digital medium for a while now, so this is a welcome addition. An app with advanced searching features will be even better.

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