Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 11 • July 2003
• Supplement

The following interview was conducted on-line by Rex How, publisher of Net and Books in Taipei, Taiwan, and published in late 2002 in Chinese translation on and in the mook (magazine-style book) number 5: A History of Dictionaries.

Charles Levine is the former V-P and Publisher of the Random House Reference Division and was recently Senior Strategist for New Product Development at Encyclopaedia Britannica. Wendalyn Nichols is the former Editorial Director of Random House Dictionaries, and prior to that the editor of the Longman Dictionary of American English. She is now freelance editing and writing.

Dictionary Publishing in America Today:
Interview with Charles Levine and Wendalyn Nichols

1. When we met in NY last time in 2000, you mentioned that all the reference works were influenced by the advent of CD-ROM and online versions, except the works in one single volume form. What’s the exact definition of “one single volume form”? How big? Also, please talk about the newest situation.

CL: I mentioned at that time that multi-volume reference works, especially large ones like the Encyclopaedia Britannica and The World Book of Knowledge, were hit hardest by the availability of digital versions of their content. But, one could say that a good part of the negative impact was forced upon book publishers from the outside, while some was self-inflicted.

First, from the outside, Microsoft led the charge against print multi-volume reference by giving away for free huge numbers of its Encarta encyclopedia on CD-ROM, throughout the 1990s, to encourage consumers to buy Wintel computers. Using un-competitive practices similar to the ones it used in other areas, Microsoft sold the CD-ROM at a very low price that was probably below its own total cost of creating and producing it—an SRP (suggested retail price) of US$59, which was often heavily discounted even lower. Microsoft kept the price artificially low to encourage people to purchase other Windows products, and also to drive competitors (in this case general reference publishers) out of business. Clearly, these tactics by Microsoft seriously depressed the multi-volume general encyclopedia business, especially in America.

Second, some of the damage that reference publishers experienced was self inflicted. For example, caught up in the Internet frenzy, Encyclopædia Britannica for a time offered free on-line access to its entire database, and neglected actively selling its print edition. This of course led nowhere financially and was an unsustainable publishing business model.
But things have improved in the past few years. Encyclopædia Britannica has resumed active publication and marketing of its print set and has a healthy number of paying subscribers to Britannica Online. And, in addition, consumers seem to now have a more sober assessment of and skepticism about the quality of free stuff on the Web, and they seem to better appreciate the value offered by paid-up providers of quality content. But in general, multi-volume print encyclopedias will never bounce back to their pre-digital sales levels.
I also mentioned that income tax preparation guides—a publication area that in many ways is peculiarly American because of our highly complex income tax code—were also seriously affected by the appearance of tax software. This trend started when the first fairly good computerized tax packages for consumers were published in the late 1980s, and picked up steam throughout the 1990s. Recently, the trend has been reinforced by the publication of CD-ROMs and DVDs that include entire volumes of tax advice (with video clips), in addition to tax preparation software to calculate and file your tax forms.

Income tax preparation guides are large format 800-page paperbacks that currently retail around US$17. Before the advent of tax software (now retailing in the range of US$29-$69 depending on the its comprehensiveness), upwards of 2 million copies of consumer tax preparation guides were sold each year in America. I doubt that even 1 million printed consumer tax guides are sold today, whereas probably more than 1 million individual Americans buy tax software each year.

So you could say generally that for every person who converted to tax software, a printed tax guide buyer was lost. This is a specialized example of single-volume reference that has felt the direct impact of digital counterparts. Once you buy the software, you have little or no need of the printed guide.

Single-volume printed general encyclopedias have also sharply declined in sales in the US. For example, in the late 1980s, Random House published a gigantic 2000-page, single-volume, lavishly illustrated, mostly full-color encyclopedia, retailing at about US$100, and sold approximately 200,000 copies of the first edition through retail channels and book clubs. This feat would be virtually impossible to duplicate today. The retail book chains today are merrily remaindering large single-volume print encyclopedias for US$30 or less.

Surprisingly (but maybe not so when you think about it), the American domestic market for printed dictionaries has not declined but seems to have remained flat. (These are American-English dictionaries for native speakers.) Each year, it appears that about 2 million printed college-level desk dictionaries are steadily sold (each about 1600 pages long and retailing for US$25). Similar sales numbers have been sustained each year for paperback (mass market) pocket dictionaries as well (each about 800 pages, retailing at US$6).

It seems that it is still easier to pick up a printed dictionary when one is reading or studying than to go to the computer to look up a word. (I still reach for a printed dictionary most of the time, reserving my computer searches for serious research on the meaning or origin of words).
Digital versions of dictionaries so far have not significantly eaten into the print market in the States. At least not yet. (If futuristic scenarios of computers come to pass, in which we will be able to talk to the computer hidden in the wall to ask for a definition, and have it recited back to us or displayed on a paper-thin monitor hanging nearby, then it is easy to imagine that printed dictionaries, or any printed references for that matter, will take a back seat to this new form of “presti-digital-ization.”)

2. As for ESL dictionaries—lexicography and publishing—the United States is far behind Britain. Is there any change in this aspect? And the reason?

WN: All the pioneering work in lexicographic works for second language learners of English was done in the UK, and the US has never really caught up. There are many reasons for this; the main one, I think, is the large size of the native speaker US domestic market combined with an unwillingness to cater to the special needs of immigrant populations; the prevailing attitude until the 1960s was the “bootstrap” mentality: “I or my forebears pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and you should too.”

The isolationism that prevailed in the US until the Second World War meant that few publishers saw the need to serve international markets, and domestically the US is such a large market for schools publishing that the educational publishers in the US found it more lucrative to concentrate on producing school dictionaries geared toward the specific grade levels in elementary school and high school (called “elhi” for short). In contrast, Britain had a large empire (gradually replaced by the Commonwealth) as a ready-made market of people who needed to learn English to get ahead.

Once US publishers woke up to the need for special materials and dictionaries for second language learners of English, they concentrated mainly on their already-established customers in the US market, specializing in literacy programs and bilingual (Spanish-English) education. These programs did not stress dictionary skills at the lower levels—students relied heavily on their bilingual dictionaries—and at the higher levels, students were encouraged to switch to a standard native speaker dictionary.

Enough teachers admired the British EFL dictionaries that the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary sold well in the US, and then Longman established a foothold in the 1970s. The Longman Dictionary of American English became the best-selling title once it was published in 1981, even though it wasn’t truly American, being patchily Americanized from the Longman Active Study Dictionary. American publishers stuck to their elhi dictionaries, and so the British and US publishers happily split the market.

The reason to keep up with the latest scholarship—like corpus-based lexicography—is an economic one, and too often reactive: if your books stop selling, then you figure out why. In the UK, the rivalry between Oxford and Longman, and the entry into the market of the COBUILD dictionary, meant that to keep up, everybody had to jump on the corpus bandwagon. US publishers, who were content to let the UK publishers have this slice of the market, did nothing about the new trend. Heinle & Heinle was the first US publisher to attempt an all-American ESL dictionary (the Newbury House Dictionary of American English), distinct from the Americanized ones coming from Britain, but it was written by one man rather than a team, and had no corpus input. Random House made the same mistake with its first foray into the ESL market, Random House Webster’s Dictionary of American English. Now, it has always surprised me that a high percentage of US teachers prefer the Newbury House dictionary with its made-up example sentences to the second edition of the Longman one that is corpus-based; they like the pedagogical nature of the former. They’d gotten used to the first edition of the Longman Dictionary of American English (LDAE), which pre-dates corpora and has example sentences that use a limited vocabulary.

It takes a lot of money to develop proprietary corpus data, and there was no equivalent initiative in America to the British National Corpus (BNC), because the US government has never supported lexicographic scholarship in the way that the UK government has, and the BNC would not have been possible without a huge chunk of money from Whitehall. At that time—the late 1980s and early 1990s—the ESL publishing market was undergoing great upheaval, with mergers, buyouts, acquisitions and divestments happening with such dizzying speed that even those US publishers who were aware of the “corpus revolution” could not convince their management to approve a significant, long-term, capital investment. Houses like Random House that did not have a history of selling into the ESL market didn’t have the mergers problem to deal with, but they had the problem of financial models that no longer allowed for long-term amortization.

So, the UK educational publishers who have the greatest penetration into the US ESL market—Longman, Oxford, and to a lesser extent Cambridge—already have dictionaries now, and the US educational publishers remain unable to get approval for the kind of funding it would take to produce a product line that would rival the UK titles. McGraw-Hill ought to have seized the day—they had the cash, the sales penetration, and the size—but they chose instead to strike deals with other publishers to represent their products to the ESL market. NTC, the National Textbook Company, produces a large line of dictionaries that are, in my view,  second-rate, but which people buy because they’re cheap.

3. Actually the previous question is related to corpus lexicography, so is there any significant change in corpus lexicography in the States? I heard that there was a big conference held by some universities and publishing houses in 1999 about how to develop some corpora together. What happened after?

WN: There is now the American National Corpus Consortium (I am an advisor) which got investment from enough publishers in the US, UK, Germany, and Japan to start work on an ANC that is modeled after the BNC so that comparative studies can eventually be done. The first 10 million words are meant to be released this Fall 2002. The initial founder investors have exclusive access during the developmental period; other commercial houses that wish to invest may still join, but at a higher fee than was the case for initial invstors. The details are on their website, Non-commercial educational institutions and individual researchers will also have access from the start. The texts are being gathered under the supervision of Randi Reppen at Northern Arizona University; they are being tagged at Vassar under Nancy Ide; and the resultant corpus will be housed on the servers at the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, which is also administering the licenses.

4. Could you express your observation about why does the States, so advanced in technology and the Internet, remain behind Britain in the field of corpus lexicography?

WN: See my answer to question 2 above.

CL: I would only add to the excellent reply to question #2. above that for a long time Britain perceived and understood the value of its language as a national asset that should be supported and could be exported, first to the far-flung British Empire and then to the Commonwealth. Recently, some American publishers have shown signs of awakening to this aspect of our brand of English—as an important national asset, with both cultural and commercial value—especially as American English gains prominence and currency globally.

I believe the British Council also actively supported and encouraged the BNC and the promotion of English-learning around the world. There is no evidence of similar support in the States.

5. What’s the general attitude of the top management of the big publishing groups toward dictionary publishing?

WN: They look at the bottom line: dictionary publishing does not make the margins they like to see, so they are perennially putting pressure on the dictionary units to cut costs.

CL: There is no question that trade publishers, who publish books most of which have a short shelf life, are not well prepared to handle programs that require long-term investments and a long-term strategy for the resulting product(s). One marketing wit once remarked that most trade books now have the shelf life of yogurt!

For example, it would cost several million US dollars to develop a new unabridged dictionary, or to thoroughly update and revise an existing one. Without being able to amortize these investment costs over several years (instead of expensing them immediately), a publicly traded consumer publisher would find it unappealing and difficult, if not impossible, to make the investments needed to create or even adequately maintain a significant dictionary program.

And, in my experience, it goes even deeper than the economics of trade publishing. The American comedian Rodney Dangerfield gained fame for his hang-dog refrain “Can’t get no respect.” Dictionary publishing during the 1990s did not fare well when owned by trade publishers like Simon & Schuster or Random House. Even when the bottom line looked good, the reference groups “Couldn’t get no respect,” and were either sold or downsized.

It ultimately came down to a clash of publishing cultures more than economics, in my experience. That is one reason why Merriam-Webster, left mostly to its own devices in Springfield, Massachusetts, far from the madding crowd of trade publishing in New York City, and with the help of its own dedicated and experienced sales force, has done so well over the years and continues to do so.

6. Since the big publishing houses in the States are owned by the huge groups, the departments of dictionaries in these publishing houses are under great pressure from higher management and have been done something very strange in the recent years. Did these kind of things happen in the past history? What’s the newest situation?

WN: Merriam-Webster is the only major American dictionary publisher that is not under financial threat: there is still some uncertainty about the American Heritage line at Houghton Mifflin because of the recent sale by Vivendi of its publishing holdings; Random House closed its division a year ago; Webster’s New World has had three different owners in five years. Encarta, the corpus-based UK-US collaborative project that was supposed to mark a new breed of dictionary, was done so quickly and edited so poorly that it was a near-complete failure: you now see copies of it everywhere on bargain book tables and street vendors’ stalls next to the cut-price brands, because it had unprecedented numbers of returns of unsold copies from booksellers.

CL: Webster’s New World is now owned by John Wiley & Sons, which has a solid reputation as a serious publisher of non-fiction. Although it is financially conservative, John Wiley should appreciate the solid scholarship that has gone into the Webster’s New World line over the years, and is likely to seek a way to keep the dictionaries alive and active going forward. This could represent a small victory for American lexicography—but, we shall see how this develops over the next few years.

7. The dictionaries should be revised every ten years or so. Are you worried that all these situations could influence the revision of the dictionaries? Could what happened to Funk and Wagnalls’s New Standard in the past happen again in the future? (I mean a great dictionary just declining without any revision.)

WN: The Random House line, especially the great Unabridged dictionary, is in danger of that very fate, unless another publisher decides to buy the rights to the Random House dictionaries and revive them. The corporate changes are definitely a threat to the revision schedules and the very existence of the larger US dictionary publishing units.

8. Did the problems in the States also happen in Britain? Why or why not?

WN: Britain still maintains a commitment to promoting the English language that is lacking in the US, so the UK-based publishers are less eager to divest themselves of dictionary units. The only dictionary house in the UK to undergo significant restructuring is Collins (the company is now HarperCollins), and this may have much to do with the fact that it is now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. Its schools assets in the US were sold to Pearson (Longman’s parent company) in the 1990s; the COBUILD project was closed in the late 1990s because the sales of the product were disappointing. Collins still owns COBUILD and so one assumes that they intend to keep updating it, but the lexicographic unit that produced it is no longer in operation. The dictionary program now concentrates on native speaker and bilingual titles, and is based in Glasgow.

Having said that, I have heard that at Longman it is becoming increasingly difficult to get approval for new innovative capital projects—they seem to be in the “let’s revise what we’ve got for now” mode. As for the two university presses: Oxford is also penny-pinching in most areas (it’s more focused on its biggest capital project, the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary); its Americanization of the Wordpower dictionary is not selling well. Cambridge now has a New York office and recently produced an American dictionary to compete with LDAE, but its sales penetration is also disappointing.

9. Besides all these, what are strongest aspects of lexicography that the States does hold in the whole English-speaking world?

WN: Outside the US, American products simply do not have enough sales success to make an impact. The few exceptions, I think, were the works that Random House had the foresight (in the old days) to license for translation in Japan, Korea, and China—the beautiful editions of the Unabridged and College dictionaries that made Random House a respected name in parts of Asia. The American lexicographic tradition for native-speaker products is long and illustrious, but the commercial climate has taken such a toll that the most brilliant lexicography now happens in specialized areas: Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang; the Dictionary of American Regional English project under Joan Houston Hall; and the recently-completed Middle English Dictionary at the University of Michigan are examples.

CL: I understand that when Mainland China’s President Jiang Zemin first visited the States, he brought a copy of the Chinese edition of the Random House College Dictionary (published by the Commercial Press of Beijing) to give to then President Clinton as a token of friendship between our two countries.

I have been told that the Random House name is well known in Japan and Korea, because of the local translations of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Of course, both Wendalyn and I worked at Random House, and I am not disinterested at all in saying that the closing of the Random House dictionary group made little sense to me, not only as a domestic publishing decision, but more so as a long-term global marketing decision. Unfortunately, the current top executives at Random House seem to look on dictionary publishing as a headache they inherited from the previous group of managers, rather than as an opportunity to do some creative global publishing and image building.

10. In the past, the quality of a lexicographer depended on the tradition as well as his own taste. How would this happen in the future? What will be the qualifications to be a lexicographer?

WN: The quality of a lexicographer will still depend heavily on all the traditional skills, as well as talent. I’ve trained plenty of people who learned the basic concepts but never became truly good, instinctual lexicographers—and unfortunately there are too many people out there who’ve had lexicographic training whose work is really quite patchy. Anybody can be taught the basic principles in a university course or an in-house training program on lexicography, but it takes someone with an instinct, an ear for the language—a poet, I would argue—to find just the right genus and differentiae and commit those to paper (or electronic database!) within the restrictions of a particular style guide.

A lexicographer will still need to have something of the teacher in him or her: an ability to convey complexity in a clear, simple, consistent form. A lexicographer will still need an unerring knowledge of grammar and a curiosity about usage and new words that keeps him or her alert to changes in the language—new words, new uses, shifts in sociolinguistic register. He or she will still need to be able to interpret citations, which have their own role to play in an active reading and marking program alongside corpus data. He or she will still need a keen attention to detail.

The skills required of a lexicographer going forward are also going to include an ability to analyze corpus data quickly, identifying and differentiating significant patterns from “rogue” uses of language, and making allowances for any bias the corpus may have. He or she will have to understand data tagging and be able to work in an electronic medium, manipulating entries across databases.

11. What is your opinion about electronic dictionaries?

WN: There are some good CD-ROM products on the market from reputable companies, and then there are a lot of bad products with very old data sets being offered for license at bargain-basement rates. You get what you pay for. Electronic handhelds are still limited in their usefulness and helpfulness because of the limitation on memory; I think that wireless handhelds could solve that problem. That’s where the future is, so whoever is first at successfully manipulating their data into a compelling, flexible, and useful format for wireless access, and can strike exclusive deals with the main manufacturers, is going to make a lot of money.

CL: Much more interesting to me, in many ways, than the CD-ROMs are the current offerings available online. For example, if you are a member of the Quality Paperback Bookclub (at, you get free access to the OED online. This is a great research tool. The Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary is also now available online (at—with a free 14-day trial, then a US$30 annual subscription fee.

12. In the Chinese world, the electronic dictionaries are very popular among the young generation readers, but we are quite worried about the qualities of them sometimes—they contain many words, but without equivalent good definitions. How do you think about this?

WN: The perennial problem is that consumers the world over do not know how to tell a good dictionary from a bad one—it doesn’t matter if it’s print or electronic. They look at the number of definitions the product claims to have, and buy the one with the largest number. And the manufacturers of these devices often choose the cheapest licensing deal they can get rather than the best content. About the only defense against this is strong consumer awareness campaigns—if a manufacturer were to choose a high-quality licensing partner (or develop its own high-quality English content) and then hit the market with a very strong marketing campaign that focused on the quality of the product, educating the consumer in the process, then it might make a dent in this trend. That’s how Longman beat out Oxford in many markets: they were quicker to exploit corpus resources and more innovative in their applications, and were able to demonstrate the difference in a global blitz of teacher-training workshops and conference presentations. The schools that teach English ought to be teaching the students how to choose a dictionary; you’re not going to convince manufacturers to reform their practices, so you’ve got to teach the consumer not to buy the inferior products.

CL: On the positive side, however, multi-lingual handheld electronic dictionaries have been a boon to students, travelers, and business people alike. Their popularity among Chinese and Japanese speakers is understandable—given the multiplicity of characters and dialects (Chinese) or writing systems (Japanese). I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that the multilingual handhelds may be contributing to an East-West communications breakthrough, by giving more and more people access to meanings and pronunciations that they can use in everyday situations. Regarding quality: everyone in the dictionary business quickly discovers that there are no shortcuts to developing quality products, which one would hope will win out in the long run.

13. What is your opinion about online dictionaries?

WN: I think it was a mistake to offer them for free—the newer works that are still under copyright and are the most up-to-date should have been set up with a subscription model from the beginning. Internet users now feel that they have the right to free information, no matter how much it cost the original publisher to produce it. Some publishers, like Columbia University Press, have been successful with encyclopedic works offered online by subscription, and I think people will start to accept this model, especially now that companies like Napster have been barred from allowing free music downloads of copyrighted material.

You also have to be careful about quality, as you do with every piece of information you get off the Internet. Being mindful of the quality of the source matters whether the delivery format is print or electronic.

CL: See my observation in the answer to question 11 above.

14. So how do you forecast the future of dictionaries in general?

WN: At this point, I see the UK and Japanese publishers being more likely to take advantage of the ANC than American publishers, and for the disparity between UK and American products to continue. I wish it weren’t so; Charles and I had great plans for the application of corpus-based lexicography to the Random House line, but what can you do when the visionaries don’t hold the purse strings, and the upper management changes so often that you don’t have a track record with them you can point to so that they trust you with large investments? This is the problem in nearly every US dictionary house; the one healthy one, Merriam-Webster, has so far remained unconvinced about introducing corpus-based lexicography. American consumers, meanwhile, will continue to make Merriam-Webster native speaker dictionaries their number-one choice; ESL teachers and students will continue to buy Americanized UK products.

15. How do you think about the project of Trésor de la Langue Française? Is there any simialiar project in the States and Britain?

WN: This is another example of a government being committed to the promotion of the national language. Neither the US nor the UK has an equivalent of the Académie Française, and I also don’t think that English-speaking nations feel the need to protect and preserve their language in the way that the French do. After all, it’s English that is perceived as threatening other languages, not vice versa. There is the English-Speaking Union, which promotes English across the globe, but that’s not the same thing. I think it’s great to keep a record of one’s language, but one could argue that the OED is doing precisely that, especially because this time it has a North American branch as well to account for North American English, so the need for another initiative isn’t really felt in the US or the UK.

16. The very last my own reading question. When I read “BNC compiled 100,000,000 words from4,000 texts,” “texts” couldn’t be “articles.” What does “texts” mean here? Categories?

WN: “Texts” is used in its broadest sense here, of “printed item”. The BNC has samples from everything from high-level scientific works to popular fiction to ephemera like bus and theater tickets. The samples range in size from under 50 words (the bus ticket) to about 40,000 words (long excerpts from a novel). It really depends on what the license granted by the owner of the copyright to that text entails: some copyright owners agreed to broader use, while others would only grant permission for extracts that come under the laws of “fair use”—in the US this is a 250-word limit, but I think it’s a 400-word limit in the UK, except in cases where the entire work is less than the word limit, as in the case of a poem. So “text” can mean a novel, a textbook, a work of nonfiction, a pamphlet, or whatever else was a source of the sample. Except for ephemera, no work is used in its entirety. Textbooks can cause particular headaches because they tend to be full of illustrations or quotations that are separately copyrighted, so to get a nice run of text to sample you often have to search quite hard through the whole book.

CL: As one can infer from Wendalyn’s answer, the exciting thing about a corpus is the range of language sources it can capture. And one shouldn’t forget to mention television, film, and radio as a rich source of contemporary usage. One can recognize almost immediately lexicography based upon an extensive corpus, because of the much more realistic tone of the illustrative sentences, for example.


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