It's hard to imagine a general bookstore without a reference section. Traditionally, dictionaries, thesauri, almanacs, atlases and single-volume encyclopedias have been booksellers' bread and butter. But with the easy availability of free online reference sites and the bundling of free dictionaries with computers, as well as paid Web-based subscription services like, it's no wonder that some booksellers and publishers are starting to question whether print reference books have peaked.

Margaret Maupin, buyer at Tattered Cover in Denver, may use her online dictionary when she's typing something up, but as far as she's concerned, "The book is not dead. There is still a market for print reference books. Believe it or not, not everyone has a computer, and not everyone has their computer turned on all the time."

Similarly, at the 60-year-old Concord Bookshop in Concord, Mass., general manager Dale Szczeblowski opines, "I think there always will be a trade reference book market. We're already above last year's reference sales, and I'd imagine we will be over by 10%. That's healthy." Szczeblowski attributes many of this holiday season's reference sales to the popularity of the stand-alone print edition of Houghton Mifflin's new American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

"Sales for reference are excellent," comments David Weich, director of content and marketing at, the Web site for Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore. "Reference remains one of our strongest sections, particularly in the physical locations."

Powells was the first independent to sell downloadable e-books online, including electronic reference. Two years ago, began offering RocketEditions for the Rocket eBook, now GemStar's eBook, and in January it will add titles for the Microsoft Reader, Glassbook and other electronic formats.

"We've been pleasantly surprised at how well e-books have done. They remain a small part of our overall sales, but those customers are among our most loyal," says Weich. Even though RocketEditions are bundled with a dictionary, he observes, "Our RocketEditions Reference subsection is regularly trafficked, about average for RocketEditions titles."

Some traditional print publishers who haven't yet taken the plunge are getting ready to test the electronic reference waters. At DK Publishing Inc., which has long had a strong CD-ROM program, especially in children's reference, president Danny Gurr says, "I'm sure e-books are part of our future. Multimedia software is still a significant part of our list. We looked at doing e-books a couple years ago, but because our books are so high-quality and heavily illustrated, the technology at the time wasn't there."

Other Publishers Weigh In

Facts on File began its first foray this year with electronic versions of online databases that had previously been available only in three-ring binders. The databases, which are sold on a subscription basis, are expected to bring in sales of $1 million this year, according to director of sales Paul Conklin. Not that Facts on File has any intention of abandoning its print program. "We're probably doing more print than ever before," says Conklin, pointing to the company's two-year-old trade imprint, Checkmark. In fact, plans call for the company to grow its 150-book-a-year list by 10% in 2001.

As far as e-books are concerned, Conklin says, "We will definitely get on board when it's profitable. Our philosophy is, we don't want to be the last people at the party; we want to be the next to last." In a few years, he predicts, e-books will be one more format that publishers can choose from, like paperback or hardcover.

By contrast, Random House has been licensing electronic data from its Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary since the 1980s. According to editorial director Wendalyn Nichols, "Random House developed the first American unabridged dictionary on CD-ROM, and we view electronic rights as an important part of our revenue stream. We concentrate far more on licensing our data than on creating products that we sell ourselves." For her, the next challenge is "direct Web access from handheld wireless devices. With live access to the Web, the issue of memory constraints becomes a non-issue. What we need to work out is how that translates into deliverable products."

Random House editors work online directly into the dictionary database. Starting in January, "people will be able to send us citations for new words and new meanings of existing words," says Nichols, referring to a new feature on the Web site. "It will help us track changes in the language."

Still, there have been some signs of trouble in electronic-reference land. Even though, the free Web information service of the encyclopedia, is ranked among the 100 most popular sites on the Web, in November it was forced to lay off 20% of its staff (News, Nov. 27).

Also, booksellers are finding that they are being cut out of the electronic book loop. Bob Cross, director of University Bookstore in Seattle, lost sales for one of the store's most popular medical books when the University of Washington, with which it is connected, licensed an online version and distributed it free to students. Nor are reference e-books currently available to brick-and-mortar stores like University Bookstore. "There's a lot of exploring around. We're hoping that a company like Ingram gets involved in this. Otherwise it's going to go around us," says Cross, whose store is one of the few to report stagnant sales for old standbys like print dictionaries.

At the University of Kansas Medical Center Bookstore in Kansas City, Kans., manager Andy Jett has seen his average unit sale decrease from $70 to $30, because students are buying ancillary books, or what he calls "The Reader's Digest Condensed Version," rather than the expensive reference book that they were meant to supplement. But beyond that, he sees no way to sell books for Palm Pilots, which are ubiquitous on campus. "The big reference books aren't ever going to be able to go on a Palm Pilot. We sell software in the store, but we haven't been able to get any distributor or publisher to let us sell it on the Web." As he sees it, "there's going to be a huge paradigm shift. We may be a conduit between publishers and customers, but at a much lower level."

To find out more about the brave new world of reference e-publishing, PW talked with some traditional publishers who have begun making their books and/or databases available in electronic formats, as well as e-book distributor netLibrary and Adobe, a software developer for electronic publishing.