Few publishing companies have been more dramatically affected by recent social trends and technological advances of the past few decades than encyclopedia publishers, who have had to reinvent themselves several times over to remain relevant in the information age. One well-known encyclopedia publisher, World Book, Inc., headquartered in Chicago since 1917, is moving forward by referring back to its origins as a consumer-based company. It is launching a new children’s trade book publishing company, Bright Connections Media, while continuing to serve the institutional market it has moved into in recent years.

At one time, company president Donald Keller says, World Book employed more than 40,000 salespeople, who sold sets of encyclopedias door-to-door to families all over the U.S. As more women entered the workforce in the 1970s, and computers became more accessible to consumers in the 1980s, direct sales of encyclopedia sets to families declined. In a bid to retain market share, World Book evolved into an institutional publisher with a sales force of 95, primarily serving the school and library markets. As schools and libraries have become more digitized in the past decade, World Book has further evolved to better serve their changing needs and tighter budgets.

“Today we sell more digital products to our customers in schools and libraries than we do print,” Keller says, explaining that 30 million students have access to World Book’s online encyclopedia and other digital products, including 15 reference-based databases. World Book also maintains five databases linked to classroom curricula, aiding teachers of science, social studies, and other subjects.

Although Keller describes World Book’s products as “predominantly” digital, the company still publishes annually updated sets of encyclopedias in print format. Since Encyclopedia Britannica ceased publishing such sets in print formats earlier this year, World Book is now the only company still doing so.

“Our motto is, we’re going to deliver our content to users in the form that they want it,” Keller explains, despite print sales dropping 12%–15% each year since 2004. While declining to provide exact numbers, Keller disclosed that the company sold “in excess of 10,000 sets” of print encyclopedias last year, both domestically and internationally (international sales account for 10% of the company’s total revenues). The print encyclopedia sets retail for approximately $1,000.

Getting Back to Its Roots

According to Keller, with the company’s retooled emphasis on serving the institutional market, World Book executives considered that they were no longer “getting to kids in their homes and families who want learning opportunities” beyond the classroom. After conducting focus groups and surveys of parents last year, World Book decided to establish a niche in the trade by launching Bright Connections.

“This is really getting back to World Book’s roots,” says Keller, “a natural progression of what our mission is: touching families and helping children learn.”

Bright Connections will be overseen by World Book’s editor-in-chief, Paul Kobasa. There will not be a dedicated staff; editors and designers from the existing staff will be assigned to Bright Connections books on a per-title basis. The line will launch with eight releases published in a range of print formats, age ranges, and subject matter, from a picture book, Angry Aardvark to Zealous Zebra, for readers up to age 7, to Knights and Castles, for readers ages 9–12. Initial print runs will be up to 5,000 copies. World Book intends to publish 16–20 titles each year, “if not more,” Kobasa says.

“The initial list is variegated, to say the least,” he noted, the result of consultations with Continental Sales, whose commission sales force will sell the books to the trade. Schools and libraries will be able to order Bright Connections titles from wholesalers like Baker & Taylor.

According to Kobasa, the strategy is to produce books that are “visually dramatic” and “marry that with perkily written but solid content” drawn from World Book’s vast stores of information. The goal, he says, is to provide children with reliable information they can use, and that may even inspire them to pick up new hobbies or lead them along an interesting career path.

“We’re responding to the concerns of parents,” Kobasa says. “They feel anxious about what more they can do to supplement what is going on in the classroom. They also realize their children can be terrifically oversubscribed. They want to give [them] a break, but even when they’re giving their children a break, they’re hoping they can find a way to turn that entertainment time into soft education time."