As Houghton Mifflin Harcourt prepared to publish the fifth edition of its American Heritage Dictionary last November, a question arose: should the work go digital, or should the dictionary continue to be made available in print? The publisher enlisted a market research firm to survey 1,200 people about their dictionary usage. The results indicated that consumers still want print dictionaries—49% of those ages 18–30, 59% of those ages 31–45, and 73% of those 46 years or older expressed a preference for the printed page.
Says Bruce Nichols, senior v-p, adult and reference, "We are bullish on print dictionaries, and our research indicates that a sizable audience wants both a dictionary at home and a portable electronic version on a smartphone." Thus HMH's fifth edition will be available in print, but will also include a passkey code for a free download of a smartphone app that works on the iPad/iPhone/iPod and Android platforms. A free companion Web site will be available as well.
Such hybrid digital/print offerings are becoming the norm in the reference category. Most reference publishers believe, as Wiley publisher Cindy Kitchel puts it, "We are not seeing that print is dead, but rather that those seeking content want choices, whether it's getting material in print, in an app, on an e-reader, or through a Web site."
Megan Newman, editorial director of Avery Books, focuses on the digital side: "While in the fiction category, readers are certainly migrating toward e-books, the exodus has been far less rapid in nonfiction. For the most part, we offer our books across all e-platforms, which allows the reader to choose."
Avery is not alone. Most publishers make digital books available on a wide variety of platforms, and the reason is simple: the perfect e-book technology, especially one that marries well with reference, does not yet exist.
Andres Fleck-Nisbet, director of digital publishing at Workman, says, "The publishing industry is still waiting for the most popular digital formats and platforms to incorporate search functionality necessary to make e-book reference titles truly useful to readers. In the meantime, Workman is experimenting with ways to use existing platforms to drive sales to our print reference titles." One such attempt is the release of The Real World Guide to Coming Out solely as an e-book in May. This short digital work serves as a preview to Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners, due out on June 1. It will be available for free on every major e-book platform with an eye to generating interest and pre-pub orders for the longer book.
Bill Smith, director, digital partner development/constellation services, and director, domestic rights for the Perseus Book Group, says, "We generally do e-book editions in both EPub and .pdf and make them available to major e-book resellers and library wholesalers. For formatting purposes, .pdf provides consistency with the print edition; however, many consumers are opting for reflowable EPub for mobile consumption of digital reference, and we want to ensure that we're allowing for consumer choice. The developing app space is also particularly appealing for reference content for obvious reasons: apps allow for logical enhancements like full searchability and video, and elements that supplement the experience of the print edition. For example, our JFK: 50 Days historical reference app (Running Press/NBC/Vook), which tracked each hour of the Kennedy presidency, complete with NBC archival video, was an iTunes bestseller."
Also combining print and digital is Elsevier, which offers its major reference works as part of its SciVerse ScienceDirect database and also provides a print option for such titles as The Encyclopedia of Fish Physiology (July). Digital can be the subject of reference books, too; see Little, Brown's November paperback Digital Photography: A Basic Manual by Henry Horenstein.
Marcus Boggs, publisher of Scarecrow Press, the primary reference imprint of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, says, "We do not foresee the demise of the printed book and still consider it viable. But clearly digital publication has become a major opportunity. That's especially true for reference works, which you tend not to read continuously, cover to cover, and for which a search capacity—finding a discrete piece of information quickly—is particularly important. We continue to publish dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, almanacs, for all of which demand persists. It seems to me that quality of the product is still the greater determinant of its success than a particular style or format."
Digital: Friend or Foe?
The ability to render books in digital format is not the only digital issue lighting up the reference category. The widespread availability of reference information on the Internet continues to threaten to make books in any format, if not obsolete, then less necessary. Yet readers do seem to be growing more aware that not everything online is reliable. Wiley's Kitchel speaks for many publishers when she says, "In many cases, free content online in more topic-driven areas competes directly with print and digital paid content. That said, sales of paid content remain strong in those areas where quality, trusted content can mean the difference between success and failure: passing a certification test, getting into graduate school, gaining college credit in an advanced placement course."