In 2008, Google made a startling announcement: in July of that year, Internet users had used the Web site to perform 235 million searches per day on average, a new record. With all of that information being sought online, it's only natural that the print reference category is feeling the pinch.
Casper Grathwohl, publisher of Oxford University Press Reference, says, “The decline in print sales this past year in particular has been almost dizzying, and I believe it's only going to accelerate. Publishers had been moving at a steady pace toward online only, but with library budgets being slashed so severely, what felt like a healthy jog has become a sprint.”
Grathwohl points to last year's African American National Biography as an example of the new measurement of success. He says, “This eight-volume set received an incredible amount of attention and praise, yet it sold a third the number of copies that it would have only a few years ago.”
In this climate, differentiating books from Web sites is key. “Reference books, unlike the Internet, can't just be a string of facts,” says Nina Hoffman, National Geographic Society executive v-p and president of the book publishing group. “They need to provide a contextual framework. A useful reference book has to lay out the points in a cohesive and organized fashion.” That, explains Hoffman, is one of the three measures that a book's concept must meet before National Geographic will consider publishing it. The other two are “functionality at an affordable price” and a topic that “resonates with the National Geographic brand.”
“Our big successes in reference have been The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge and The New York Times Practical Guide to Practically Everything. We're doing a second edition of the practical guide this fall, and we did a second edition of the essential guide in 2007,” says Lisa Senz, division v-p and associate publisher for the reference group at St. Martin's Press. “These books seem to sell despite the Internet, probably because it's hard to find essential knowledge on just one site.”
Besides, notes Workman editor-in-chief Susan Bolotin, “You can't give a Web site as a gift.” The house is publishing Alien Hand Syndrome: And Other Too-Weird-Not-to-Be-True Stories by Alan Bellows and the editors of Damn Interesting. The book, which has entries on exploding lakes, cyborg cats and corpse farms, began life as a Web site, though much of its content is new. Likewise, according to Bolotin, another Workman title, The Menopause Book by Pat Wingert and Barbara Kantrowitz can compete with free online information because “if a woman goes online to get her information about menopause, she may well come away fearful, paranoid and certainly confused. The information is unfiltered. Even on a great reference like WebMD, the reader has to sift through large amounts of information to find what applies to her.”
Tried and True vs. The New
In addition to working to stand apart from what's available online, today's reference books diverge into two distinct categories: the tried and true and the new. Examples of the former include such items as foreign language dictionaries (the fourth edition of the Oxford Italian Mini Dictionary is out this month). National Geographic continues to publish heavily in the science and history categories, with titles like National Geographic Concise History of Science and Invention: An Illustrated Time Line. Wiley, too, is still adding new titles to its “For Dummies” series, including U.S. Constitution for Dummies by Dr. Michael Arnheim and the environmental LEED for Dummies by Consumer Dummies. Other traditional reference publishers such as Barron's are adding new titles and also reissuing old reliables, resulting in the third edition of the Dictionary of Mathematics Terms by Douglas Downing in July. Langenscheidt will add to its Story of... series with The Story of Science and The Story of Literature.
“A big reference work in a field where we already have a well-developed list boosts our visibility and attracts a broad readership of students and scholars,” says Anne Savarese, executive editor for reference at Princeton University Press. One such title is this summer's The Princeton Guide to Ecology, with more than 90 commissioned articles. The press is also revising and updating The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, first published in 1965, for the first time in more than 15 years.
Encyclopedia of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Lynne Rienner), edited by Cheryl A. Rubenberg, is notable not only because of its serious nature but because of its hefty price: the three-volume set will ring up at $395. President and CEO Lynne Rienner says, “We originally conceived of a one-volume, 500-page work. However, the topic called for more coverage, and our feeling is that you can't publish a sort of comprehensive encyclopedia. Trimming the size in order to lower the price simply was not an option. However, we have priced the set as low as possible—perhaps even lower than we should have in order to recover our costs.” Rienner notes, too, that the book is intended mainly for libraries.
On the lighter side are the quirky niche titles. A sample of such books appears in the sidebar on page 000, but titles in this category cover almost every facet of pop culture. For a case in point, see the Halo Encyclopedia—a guide to one of the most popular video games—coming from DK in the fall.
Halo Encyclopedia is being created with Microsoft, maker of the game, which approached the publisher last year after Comic-Con. “They saw our impressive array of Star Wars, DC Comics, Marvel and other licensed reference titles,” says Alex Allan, DK's director of licensed publishing. This is the first such title from the publisher, but since it comes with a built-in audience, it doesn't pose much of a risk.
Sterling publisher Jason Prince says, “You can be more creative with quirky niche pop-culture books in terms of packaging, design and presentation, and it is easier to stand out from the crowd with these types of books. I think that there is a general sense that much of traditional reference (i.e., dictionaries, atlases, etc.) have migrated away from the printed book, but there is still a vibrant market for light reference that is edgier and more niche.”
In July, Sterling will blur the line between coffee-table books and reference books when it publishes Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World, edited by Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury and with a foreword by Martin Scorsese. The work is informative, yes, but it also contains plenty of photos and will be published in conjunction with the landmark concert's 40th anniversary in July.
Tying into another anniversary—this one the 75th anniversary of the National Archives—is the June title from Giles (distributed by Antique Collectors' Club) Big! Big Records, Big Events and Big Ideas in American History: Celebrating 75 Years of the National Archives by Stacey Bredhoff, to accompany the exhibition running through January 3, 2010. Sales and marketing administrator Liz Japes says, “This is a book to accompany the exhibition rather than just a catalogue, designed to enhance the exhibition experience through the use of large images and texts, including pullouts of many of the important and notable exhibits.” School and research libraries are expected to make up a large part of the audience for the title.
Bolotin, of Workman, notes that the publisher has never been known for “straight” reference books such as atlases or dictionaries, but instead is trying to “redefine the category and go beyond it.” The house continues to pay a great deal of attention to keeping prices low and, reports Bolotin, “While sales may be harder to get in these tough times than they were in the past, these books are not particularly affected—in large part, I think, because they are so useful for these tough times.”
When Is a Reference Book Not a Reference Book?
Even some tried-and-true stalwarts are migrating to new platforms, however. In July of last year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt launched its American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language in format for the iPhone. The dictionary can be downloaded from the iTunes App Store. “It's been the bestselling dictionary there since its launch, and we have over a dozen other reference titles available for the iPhone, which reinforces our brand awareness in all sales channels,” says Christopher Leonesio, managing editor for reference.
At Adams Media, a division of F+W Media, information that has been successful in book form is migrating online to the Everything.com Web site, scheduled to launch this summer. The Everything series includes 450 books on a wide variety of topics, from cooking to job hunting, and the books have reached, the company says, an audience of 12 million. F+W Media president Sara Domville adds that Everything.com “will also leverage the wealth of information from across F+W Media and our publishing partners.”
Adams Media publisher Karen Cooper reports, “Rather than be limited to a one-way information flow, the site will take advantage of user-generated content.” Users will have the ability to share advice, contribute their own articles (to be vetted on the editorial side) and rate articles that already appear on the site. The site will generate income in a variety of ways, including contextual advertising, targeted sponsorships, e-mail newsletters and sales of digital content, eBooks, mobile applications and other items.
But is it a book series or a Web site? Cooper says, “While the site is based on the popularity of the series, the site and the printed product are mutually exclusive. We will continue to publish the best, most popular subjects within the Everything Series; the site allows us limitless space to encompass any or every topic, limited only by the interests of our consumers and we know they are many.”