When it comes to trends in reference publishing, the big questions today often revolve around formats. Is reference today about aggregated databases? Google and open-Web resources like Wikipedia? E-books? Print?

For a little guidance, I got in touch with content developer Mirela Roncevic, former longtime reference editor at Library Journal and now a contributor to the No Shelf Required blog. She gives me something of a wake-up call when she says, “I am seeing more and more that to separate reference from other content is an outdated way of looking at things. It’s all content, and there is a sea of it out there. And it is all blending together.”

She’s right, of course. No one would dispute that digital technology now dominates our information. In the digital world, a staggering amount of information, including books, is now searchable and available at the touch of a screen. Yet information is still being consumed in a mix of formats, including print.

In surveying this year’s trends in reference publishing, I examined which kinds of reference works are keeping their heads above water.

Whither Print?

It’s been said that the smartphone put an end to bar bets. And according to some, the traditional reference sector may be obsolete as well. With quick answers now available at the touch of a screen, questions that used to require a trip to the library are now retrievable in seconds.

But on the general consumer side, a look at Nielsen BookScan shows that even though the days of the expensive, annually updated A–Z general print encyclopedia sets may be over, print is not dead. In fact, for some venerable reference brands, life in print goes on, even as print editions live alongside digital and online components. The top sellers in 2015 include some familiar names, led by the Guinness Book of World Records, The Elements of Style, and The World Almanac. Merriam-Webster’s various dictionaries still sell well in print, even as the company has a suite of free online offerings, including mobile apps and even games.

In a world of GPS and Google Maps, atlases are hanging around, with Rand McNally selling well. Travel guides and other guidebooks—such as those published by Globe Pequot, including the respected Falcon Guides, and the popular Hiking series, which spans national parks from coast to coast—also remain popular in print.

Beyond common grammar questions and help with traveling, a clear bestselling subject has emerged in the consumer reference market: wedding planning. A search of the Nielsen data shows over a dozen titles near the top of the Nielsen’s Reference category, led by Penguin Random House’s The Knot’s Ultimate Wedding Planner, and the Do You Know Your Bride? and Do You Know Your Groom? titles from Source Books.

So what’s keeping print reference books going for consumers in the era of Google searches? “Reputation,” says Gary Price, a reference expert and the founder and editor of InfoDocket. “Reputation does matter—accuracy matters, currency matters, scope matters. It matters to a lot of people that there is a name behind the product beyond Wikipedia.”

Also key is that these brands exist both online and in digital editions, and that the products all add value to one another. “Browsing a book is not the same as browsing online,” Price notes. Sometimes you know what you want and can locate it with an online search. But there is a serendipity to print that still matters, he says. And a flipping through a well-indexed print volume can sometimes be faster and less aggravating than using Google, or wading cluelessly through databases.

“We’ve heard for a long time now that everything is going to be electronic,” Price adds. “But I think we’re starting to see that the hype has in some cases exceeded the reality.”

But Digital Rules

When it comes to reputation, there may be no stronger brand anywhere than Oxford University Press. But even though the market for print reference has some bright spots, it is not an area of growth, says Oxford University Press reference publisher Damon Zucca. The arc of reference history bends toward digital—and the center of gravity has indeed shifted to online resources.

“The casual researcher, the general reader that used to buy print reference books, is now using a Web browser, not pulling a book off the shelf,” Zucca says. “We see this in declining sales of general reference in print, and in the enthusiastic uptake of specialized online reference products that offer a genuine alternative to non-vetted materials.”

Among the bright spots, Oxford’s Companion series is still glowing—especially in the culinary field. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, edited by Darra Goldstein, has been a big success, Zucca says, and this fall, OUP will release a long-anticipated third edition to Jancis Robinson’s classic Oxford Companion to Wine, as well as the New York City food guide Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City, edited by Andrew Smith.

But if there is a work that exemplifies OUP’s approach to reference today (and perhaps for reference publishing in general), Zucca says it is the forthcoming digital version of the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD). In print for some 70 years, the OCD is one of the best-known reference works in the world. And no longer constrained by print, the new digital edition will feature longer articles and bibliographies, links, multimedia, and regular updates.

“Unprecedented access to information on the Web has unquestionably been good for research and knowledge,” Zucca says. But he adds that what users need in today’s world of information overload is “reliable, specialized, foundational information” that includes “clear pathways” to other relevant trusted content—reinforcing Price’s observation about reputation,

Rolf Janke, a 30-year industry veteran and the former head of Sage Reference, agrees. From a past marked by sprawling, annually updated multi-edition general works, the future of reference, he believes, is skewing toward single-volume works that are affordably priced and come in multiple formats (print, e-books, and online) on “topics that matter.”

In June, Janke’s latest venture, Mission Bell Media, a reference publisher devoted to leadership studies, celebrated the publication of its first list: a series of single-volume works on African-American leadership, Asian-American leadership, Hispanic-American leadership, and sports leadership. The books feature authoritative articles and a general glossary of more than 950 leadership terms, and it comes in digital and print editions, with a separate digital version of the glossary only available through Credo Reference.

For a reference sector that many say is shrinking in the Internet age, Janke’s decision to dive back in with a new venture points to the opportunities that are now available. Janke says the days of libraries buying general reference works on broad subjects is over, due to tight budgets, the Internet, and massive databases. But a market for expert, reliable content on specialized subjects is rising in its place. “We are betting on the significance of leadership and innovation as topics.”


For librarians, the biggest purchasers of reference works, things are complicated—because digital is not only changing the products they buy, it is changing their very existence. Not so long ago, reference librarians bought works, shelved and catalogued them, and helped users navigate them. Today, libraries are dismantling their reference rooms, paying hefty fees to subscribe to databases, and providing their services online, often via chat, all under constantly strained budgets.

Kay Cassell, professor of library and information science at Rutgers University, is quick to point out that reference purchases vary among academic, public, and school libraries. But she agrees that the trend in libraries means less “ready reference,” that is, books of collected facts, more single-volume specialty works, and, in academic libraries especially, large databases from providers such as Gale, ProQuest, and EBSCO.

Is print still valuable? Of course, says Dave Harmeyer, associate dean of University Libraries at Azusa Pacific University. But “print reference is taking up space that could be better used by trends such as makerspaces,” he notes. And reference services in libraries are taking place increasingly over email and instant messaging, rather than face-to-face.

“When answering a reference question, the answer always comes from online, and not the print reference copy of the same work, even though the print manuals are a reach away on shelves behind me,” he notes. “If I’m engaged in a chat reference or answering an email question, rarely do I answer the question with a call number. Instead I’ll set up a couple of screen captures on how to locate the answer on the Internet, or merely send the URL.”

Nevertheless, “people do still expect to find reference books in libraries,” Cassell says. And she stresses that some need to buy print to protect against budget cuts, which could interfere with digital subscriptions and thereby cut off libraries’ access to their own materials. The result is that reference work for libraries today is a difficult balancing act involving budgets, a mix of new and old formats, and ever-shifting needs and expectations.