I bought Wikipedia last week. Well, in fact, I only bought volume 147 of the German print version of Wikipedia, which started with the article on 'Anarchismus in den Niederlanden' and ended with the article on 'Anatopia'. As it happens, it wasn't even the complete German language version of Wikipedia that was printed, as it was missing images and even recent references – and it was the 2016 version. This volume of over 700 pages cost me EUR 87.03, including postage and taxes. Foolish, of course: the information was, first of all, already outdated at the moment I bought this volume. Secondly, it was incomplete, given the lack of images and recent text and references, and overall, the paper version doesn’t have all the extras that an online version has (like working hyperlinks, searching, zooming in, and switching to other language versions). But then again, I like to do foolish things.
A printed version of Wikipedia is nonsense, of course, as Wikipedia holds not just the current version, but the history of all its articles. Well, is it nonsense? Some call it art, or use it to show the size of all human knowledge. The exhibitions of Michael Mandiberg in New York (2015), Berlin (2016), Ghent and Belgium (2018) were clearly intended to help understand the true size of Wikipedia, or in the artist's words "both a utilitarian visualization of the largest accumulation of human knowledge and a poetic gesture towards the futility of the scale of big data".
We were lucky: Mandiberg, helped by the Lulu company, didn't print the complete Wikipedia. In New York he made his case with 106 printed volumes out of the 7,473 volumes that would have been needed to print the complete English language version of Wikipedia in 2015. In Berlin dozens of volumes were displayed (out of the needed 3,406 for the full German language version). If you want to buy a volume, print-on-demand technology will still cater to you. If you want to see how a print Wikipedia looks in 2023, you have to go to Eindhoven (in the Netherlands) and visit the current exhibition (open till March 2023) in the futuristic building Evoluon, where the Dutch language Wikipedia can be seen printed in 68 books of 700 pages each.
It gets far wackier than art exhibits, though: Books LLC, in Memphis, was a company that sold books compiled from a category of articles from Wikipedia. In 2009, they had some 224,000 titles for sale, but it looks like they went defunct some time around 2017. One of the last volumes they published was Graffiti in the United States (2013), ISBN 9781233100187. Earlier publications included such titles as Dam disasters (2011) ISBN 9781156436356 and 20th-century national presidents in Africa (2010), ISBN 978-1-15-597499-6, the latter of which consisted of fifty Wikipedia articles glued together in one volume, for sale at $32. No kidding: see the photo.
Back to where we started: the economics of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not for sale, for several reasons. The most important reason is that the capital of Wikipedia is its community. Members of our community write the text, create the images, and edit the encyclopedia. The articles may be licensed under Creative Commons, but the users are not. One nice thing about our licensing arrangement is that, in theory, we could just pick up the content and continue elsewhere (although this still requires the support of a large community that can help build the house further). The Wikimedia Foundation owns the servers on which the different language versions run, but the Foundation doesn't own the content. Indeed, Wikipedia as a concept looks like something so odd it can never work in practice. That's why it does.