From time to time, PW takes a look at changes and challenges in children's reference publishing, and recent scouting clued us in to noteworthy trends and titles—as well as some concerns voiced by those who publish books in this genre. Not surprisingly, the issue of the Internet's increasingly prominent role as a source of reference information for kids was a launching pad in conversations with editors and publishers. Questions about how companies are shaping their publishing programs in this electronic era—and whether youngsters' use of the Internet for information gathering is complementing or competing with their reliance on the printed word—brought a range of responses.
"The Internet is a very important factor for publishers," said Beth Sutinis, senior editor of children's books at DK Publishing. "Over the past several years, publishers have been faced with having to make a decision between treating the Internet as enemy and competitor, or embracing it and thinking of it as a complement to in-print publishing."
DK has clearly chosen the latter path, heartily embracing the Internet with its October publication of e.encyclopedia, a lavish 448-page hardcover published in association with the search engine Google. Keywords in each entry in the book direct readers to a dedicated Web site (created by Google and maintained and updated by a team that includes representatives from that company and DK), where kids can be connected to information found on more than 1,000 Web sites. The publisher has also collaborated with Google on two spinoff series of smaller volumes: a line of subject-specific books launching this spring with e.encyclopedia science and the e.explorer series, set to debut in fall with four books. Both of these series will also feature dedicated Web sites.
While acknowledging that "the Internet is our strongest competition right now," Nancy Feresten, v-p and editor-in-chief of National Geographic Children's Books, seemed little threatened by the massive resources that the Web offers youngsters. "Those in our industry are busy positioning children's reference books in a way that truly draws on the strength of the book and what it can do as opposed to what the Internet can do. Books do a much better job with visual presentation—with design and reproduction of photos. And books accommodate how families use reference. If a discussion arises in the home, it is much easier for parents and children to reach for an encyclopedia off the shelf and look it up together right then and there than go to a monitor."
Feresten also emphasized the editorial advantage of having kids research a subject in a book rather than on the Web. "The Internet isn't able to take random factual information and make it meaningful the way a book does," she observed. "It doesn't synthesize the information into a narrative. It can't give the facts a context, which is what we work hard to do in our books."
As an example of what books can do, Feresten cited National Geographic Mysteries of History by Robert Stewart, a 192-page hardcover released last October. "Obviously, you can't cover all of world history in less than 200 pages," she noted. "Instead of presenting a long list of facts that are difficult to absorb, this book examines how people have solved different historical problems. The facts are imbedded in a story, which makes them much more accessible."
Nancy Grant, managing director of Kingfisher Publications, similarly praised the printed page for its ability to "give young readers a sense of direction and a frame of reference that they really can't find on the Internet." She remarked that if students set out to research a topic—such as the French Revolution or President Kennedy's assassination—on the Internet, "they won't necessarily know the source of the information they find—and it won't have a point of view. In contrast, a book has an editor, an author and authority behind it. We as publishers can give children so much that the Internet cannot, yet still make sure that books and the Web coexist."
Ken Wright, editorial director of Scholastic Reference, also expressed concern about the sometimes anonymous source of the data kids find on the Web. "There is no guarantee that the material on the Internet is up to the highest standards or has editorial credibility," he said. "If a kid is doing a book report about Egypt, he or she can scroll through pages and pages of material from different sites without censorship. It's a big concern of parents and teachers we talk to."
Among the lead titles on his imprint's summer 2004 list is Scholastic Children's Encyclopedia, which has 600 entries and 2,000 illustrations, photos, computer graphics, diagrams and maps. (This is a companion to Scholastic Children's Dictionary, which has sold 400,000 copies since its May 2002 release.) Though Wright noted that the new reference "is aimed at kids just young enough that they aren't likely to be using the Internet often to do homework," a slogan used in some of the marketing materials for the encyclopedia ("Click Here First!") gives a clever nod to the book's electronic competition.
Linking Books to the Web
Though no other publisher queried has released a tome with such integral ties to the Internet as DK's ventures with Google, most reported that they do include in the bibliographies of their reference and nonfiction books information directing readers to Web sites that will provide additional information on topics covered in the pages. The inclusion of these links obviously requires advance research into the Web sites as well as frequent review to ensure that they are still up to date and relevant. Laurie Likoff, editorial director of Facts on File, observed, "When we refer readers to Web sites, we double and triple check to make sure that they are appropriate and current." Among Facts on File's latest series are Faith in America and Mythology A to Z, which are sold through both the trade and library markets.
Robert Famighetti, publisher of World Almanac Library, whose core market is schools and libraries, remarked that he believes the Internet and printed reference material should be viewed as complementary and that most of the 100 books published annually under his imprint cite Web sites "which we have prescreened and feel are appropriate and useful at the time the book is published. Our books refer readers to our own World Almanac Web site as well as other sites specific to the subject matter." Like Likoff, he added that these links—as well as other time-sensitive information—are updated whenever a reprint or revised edition is issued.
Facts on File and World Almanac offer extensive online databases on a variety of subjects, available on a subscription basis to school and public libraries. Scholastic Library Publishing, comprising Grolier, Children's Press and Franklin Watts, enables students to access three encyclopedias and four additional databases through Grolier Online, also sold to libraries. Phil Freedman, v-p and publisher of Scholastic Library Publishing, observed that these online subscription services that provide youngsters with solid databases "help expose kids to valid, objective information rather than leave them on their own to evaluate what they find on the Internet." Focusing on multi-volume reference sets sold primarily to the school and public library markets, Grolier recently added to three of its successful series, World of Animals, Peoples of North America and Fiesta!
Published annually by World Almanac Books and selling some 400,000 copies each year through the trade and institutional markets, World Almanac for Kids boasts its own Web site (www.worldalmanacforkids.com)—one that is a popular destination for online surfers. Kevin Seabrooke, managing editor of this reference, explained that the free interactive Web site provides an electronic version of some of the book's contents, as well as games and other activities kids can print out and contests they can enter online. "The Web site is fun yet educational at the same time," he explained, noting that—in a gratifying twist—sometimes kids find the Web site first and then search out the book. One of the site's popular features is "Ask the Editors," which receives at least 100 e-mails each week from youngsters all over the world and gives Seabrooke and his colleagues useful feedback. "We try to respond to all the mail, which shows us what readers are interested in and helps us shape the editorial content of the book," he said. He laughed as he describes a not uncommon request: "We get e-mails from kids saying they have a take-home test or a paper due the following day and need to know XYZ immediately. We tell them that we can't do their homework for them, but sometimes we do answer their questions directly and often refer them to other Web sites. But not all the e-mails ask for help. Sometimes kids write just to say, 'Hey, you guys are cool!' "
To help such electronically savvy kids seeking homework assistance, several other reference publishers are stepping up to the plate—or screen. National Geographic this fall launched a homework-help Web site on which, Feresten explained, "one can type in a topic and pull up resources culled from National Geographic's magazines, television shows and various departments. We will also do occasional stories based on our books." Ken Wright reported that Scholastic Reference is working with Scholastic.com—a Web site that, in his words "offers a gateway into all the Scholastic archives"—to create a site that will help students with homework and school research. This Web site will feature electronic editions of some of the imprint's book product, initially offering the texts of Scholastic Book Files, reading guides to such middle-grade novels as Shiloh, Julie of the Wolves and Out of the Dust—as well as supplementary material not included in the print versions.
The Look of the Books
Well aware that their print product is also competing graphically with the Internet, most publishers acknowledge the importance of filling their reference and nonfiction books with vibrant, enticing visuals that will seize the attention of kids weaned on eye-catching, animated TV and computer screens. Nancy Grant pointed to the formats of two series launched last fall—Kingfisher Young Knowledge (for ages 5-8) and Kingfisher Knowledge (for ages 9-14)—as examples of books that rely on compelling art. "By using digitized imaging, straight photography and illustration, these books make the subject come alive and immediately engage the student," she said. "New technology lets us compete with the Internet visually. Obviously publishers always have to be committed to the integrity of the text and the high quality of the content, but we must be equally committed to the art program, since that is the way in for so many young people today."
At Scholastic, Wright emphasized the need for reference and nonfiction volumes to be "kid-friendly in terms of visuals and organization so that they aren't perceived as boring. For so long reference books for young readers were designed to be junior editions of adult books, but the days of thinking that the A to Z format works are gone. Kids are now bombarded by so much information from other media that books have to grab their attention—quickly."
Clearly designed to do just that is Speedy Facts, a Scholastic Reference series of subject-specific titles by Melvin and Gilda Berger. "These books present concise facts and six or seven eye-popping illustrations on each spread," Wright explained. "They blend the traditional with the wild and wackier." The latter is evident in the titles of the four books that will launch the series next summer, among them Penguins Swim But Don't Get Wet: And Other Amazing Facts About Polar Animals and Fish Sleep But Don't Shut Their Eyes: And Other Amazing Facts About Ocean Life.
World Almanac for Kids provides a dramatic example of the graphic revolution in reference tomes. The snappily designed pages of the 2004 edition feature neon-hued backgrounds and copious color illustrations and photos, while as recently as 1999 the book was printed entirely in black-and-white. "In response to what the Internet, TV and video games visually present to kids, we have focused on using more vibrant visual images and have moved away from clip art and cartoons," explained editor Seabrooke. "We know we have to make the almanac visually exciting."
Offering a curious twist on the potentially edgy relationship between the Internet and reference books is the issue of the former's role today in creating both the text and the visuals on the printed page. At DK, Beth Sutinis pointed to the bountiful resources that publishers can download. "We now can easily use the Internet to create books," she says. "We can access all major photo archives online as well as much content, including the resources of the Library of Congress. Not only is there an incredible amount of information out there—much of it is free."
National Geographic's Feresten noted that her company also relies on what she terms "the incredible electronic resources now available to us. Our ability to access databases—and combine them—is growing by leaps and bounds. For example, when our cartographers make maps for our books, they can easily access information about migration, weather, agriculture and population of a specific location and overlay it to demonstrate how all the data works together. It's state-of-the-art map programming."
Yet Feresten also conceded that in some instances new technology can't entirely replace the tried and true. Much of the production of last summer's revised and expanded edition of National Geographic World Atlas for Young Explorers was, in her words, "high tech. But our cartographers decided that in this case digital maps of the ocean floor didn't give a sufficiently artistic vision, so, working with the digital data sets and using the information on each grid square, they actually painted the maps by hand with acrylics. It's easy to get excited about the latest and greatest methods, but sometimes the best way to present information combines the new and the old techniques."
Trade Nonfiction Makes the Grade at School
Another trend hit upon while investigating publishers' reference lists is the blurring of the line between the institutional and home markets, given publishers' reports of the growing use of trade nonfiction in the classroom. At Kingfisher, Grant said that parent company Houghton Mifflin's trade and educational departments "are closely linked and on the trade side we are always paying attention to what is happening in schools. Whereas in the past, teachers sought out more fiction for classroom use, many are now using grade-specific nonfiction books. I have heard from teachers that giving reluctant readers nonfiction titles on subjects they are interested is an effective way to get them reading. We are focusing on coordinating reading levels with appropriate subjects." Feresten at National Geographic also recognizes what she calls today's "nonfiction literacy movement that is being strongly supported by school funding," and noted that nonfiction books, which so effortlessly tie into school curricula, are a natural in the classroom.
This increased popularity of trade nonfiction in schools may well be encouraging what appears to be a recent trend toward single-subject volumes rather than voluminous, comprehensive reference tomes. Also attractive to teachers is the cover price of briefer books on specific topics, obviously lower than a heftier reference volume or textbook. Beth Sutinis at DK said, "Dollars for books for classrooms and school libraries are so scarce and it seems that children's aren't as engaged by textbooks as they once were. Nonfiction books provide a great way to cover different angles of the curriculum." Sutinis anticipates that the DK Biography paperback series, which debuts in July with photo-illustrated profiles of Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank, Helen Keller and John F. Kennedy, will have success in schools as well as the trade, since this is a genre "that is not only popular for summer reading but is closely tied into the social studies curriculum."
Famighetti of World Almanac Library mentioned that teachers' interest in attractively priced supplemental classroom reading material has led this imprint to release the bulk of its titles in dual editions. "We find that a teacher buying multiple copies of a title will purchase the paperback edition since the price point is more affordable," he said. "When we launched our imprint two and a half years ago, we published dual editions on a small scale, testing the waters with our more classroom-oriented titles. Those initial efforts met with such success that now we publish a simultaneous paperback edition of virtually every book we do."
The demands of the school market—as well as feedback from trade retailers—are also fueling some houses' nonfiction Spanish-language publishing initiatives. DK has launched an ambitious program that entails translating a number of its information-based books into Spanish, including some Eyewitness (Guías Visuales) books. The company is also issuing more bilingual English/Spanish books, especially on the preschool and early elementary level. "Our program is geared toward the American Spanish-speaking market," explained Sutinis, "which covers Spanish-speaking families learning English together or kids learning Spanish in school as a second language." On a tangential note, Nancy Grant notes dramatic growth in sales of her company's English-language The American Heritage Children's Thesaurus and The American Heritage Student Thesaurus, which she attributes in part to the increase in this country's Spanish-speaking population, remarking "anyone who is learning a new language finds a thesaurus invaluable. It gives much more subtle meaning to words than a dictionary does."
A number of PW's conversations with reference publishers came full circle, as individuals were quick to mention electronic-age competition as they offer their takes on what's in store for the genre. Though understandably plugging the value of the printed word, the group predicts an ongoing symbiotic relationship between reference books and the Internet, with both supplying a valuable service to kids in search of information. And no one fears for the fate of the bound reference book, at least not until, as Nancy Feresten put it, "an electric file can be downloaded onto a portable, book-sized reader that is inexpensive enough that it isn't tragic if it drops into the bathtub." For now, paper and ink have a key advantage over keyboard and screen when it comes to children's books. In Beth Sutinis's words, "We all like to think of parents and children reading together—and it's difficult to snuggle up in front of a monitor." Indeed, a book fits much more comfortably between two laps.