• The Publishing Post

Dictionaries and Their Jump from Paper to Screens

By Annie Jay


In a recent Twitter poll, I asked users whether they preferred to use dictionaries in their paper form or in their digital format. The results, as obvious as it may seem, were a huge shock to myself: an astonishing 76.2% voted that their preference leaned towards the digital format. It’s a well-known fact that digital publishing is – and has been for many years – hugely present in our lives. Therefore, it most definitely affects the publishing process and publishing as a career. 


Although digitised dictionaries are very convenient for a number of reasons, some people still find it difficult to rely on them over their paper versions. Sometimes it’s not even a matter of reliability, but of tradition or preference. It goes without saying, however, that online dictionaries are updated easier and quicker than those that have to go through a whole individual editing and publishing process as a whole; new words and definitions can be added individually at any time. Every dictionary user is entitled to their own opinion, but the real question here is, will this modernised format end up taking over our cherished, wonderful, heavy hardback dictionaries? And with them, will it take away a part of the publishing industry?


When we think about the digitised format, our thoughts go straight to eBooks and online platforms. Be that as it may, these were not the first digitised resources for dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary was modernised into electronic text in 1989. Nevertheless, its online version as we now know it was not available until the year 2000. The CD-ROM version, published in 1992, had already been a huge success internationally due to the large amount of information included in such a small, shiny disk. Nevertheless, the online platform made the OED even more accessible to a higher number of people all over the world.


Consequently, this is what makes us think that maybe our paperback dictionaries will one day end up disappearing. However, these digital versions have been available since 1992, as mentioned above, and yet the OED Mini (paperback version) has recently been ranked at number ten in the top 150 books sold on Amazon UK, and the Oxford Mini Dictionary & Thesaurus (also paperback), at number thirty-three. Of all the novels, poetry books, course books and every other kind of book sold on Amazon, paperback dictionaries continue to remain very high up on the list of bestsellers, which is updated hourly and based entirely on sales.


On the contrary, not a single dictionary makes an appearance on the list of bestsellers in the Kindle Store. This does not mean, of course, that nobody buys digital dictionaries. Having said that, it does tell us that physical dictionaries are sold more than their digital versions, at least via Amazon. Therefore, at least between these two formats, our paper versions may still be in the lead. 


Despite the existence of so many different formats – those mentioned above, along with others such as mobile phone applications for word search and/or translations – we continue to buy and support paperback dictionaries. Although all the previous are, of course, positive statistics, as this means our traditional paperbacks continue to be printed and bought and, therefore, live on, it does not mean that this preference is here to stay. The good news for aspiring editors and/or publishers, however, is that whether dictionaries are published as physical books or electronically, they will most probably always have to seek external help from our industry. They will need proofreading, grammar checks, definition checks, research, and a whole long list of etceteras. 


Reaching back to the convenience of digital dictionaries, I understand that the most common scenario is that people own physical versions, but they also use the digital and/or online versions, too. Even by simply looking at a dictionary, it’s easy to tell that they weigh quite a lot. Because of this, it is difficult for their users to carry them around, especially if the users in question travel around a lot or tend to move house. Regardless of our love for paper books, sometimes we have to make the decision to use a smaller and less heavy option – that is, their digital versions. This does not make anybody any less of a book lover: sometimes convenience is simply a priority.