The need to know, it's often said, is one of the most basic human needs. One might ask, The need to know what? Interestingly, this is the question that reference publishers struggle with season after season--with the advent of Internet-based resources, more so than ever. Even in an area where the "what" would seem to be a given--word definitions for a dictionary, for instance--the question remains: what words, how many, who wants to know them, what language do they want to know them in, what exactly do they want to find out?

If the "what" were the only imponderable, the world of reference publishing would be not so different from the fiction universe, where finding the right novel for the right reading public tops the list of must-solve problems. But reference publishers face additional challenges unique to the field of information delivery. While Internet information isn't necessarily authoritative (and it isn't all vetted), it is broad, deep and up-to-date, and much of it is free. Margaret Maupin, buyer at Denver's Tattered Cover, cites Dan Smith's The State of the World Atlas (Penguin), a visual survey of economic, political and social trends, as a reference title that took a steep downward sales turn in 1997, just as Internet use climbed, and hasn't recovered since, at least not at Tattered Cover. According to Maupin, "All of the information in the book would be easy to get on the Web."

Casper Grathwohl, senior editor in charge of trade reference at Oxford University Press, notes that people feel less compelled to own a basic reference library now than they did even 10 years ago. "Our relationship to paper is different culturally," he says. "Reference is changing and we all know that, but it's allusive as to how and we're all trying to pin that down."

In the Internet era, what makes someone willing to devote bookshelf space to a hefty reference tome that may not even define the word "Taliban" or "burka," when an online resource can add it overnight as the need arises? "If I need to find out the name of a senator from Connecticut, I'll look in an almanac, a friendly place to look things up," says Maupin. "But if I need to know in depth what the senator's voting record is, say, I'll go to Google--it's so easy."

How's Business?

We asked several reference publishers what they considered the biggest challenge these days in publishing and marketing these works. In other words, with intensive labor demands, fierce market competition, skimpy review attention and lack of an author to promote, what's a poor reference publisher to do? Keep at it as always? Modify publishing programs? Lower expectations? Try harder? All of the above? We heard a variety of answers about not just one, but a multiplicity of challenges.

Of the choices above, Stephen Maikowski, director of the fledgling academic and trade reference program at New York University Press, votes for "keep at it." Sustaining the market in reference books in print form is a significant challenge, he says--but a necessary one, since revenues from the paper volumes sustain the press. Says Maikowski, "Convincing libraries that they need to continue holding reference titles in print, especially given the shortage of shelf space in most libraries of all kinds, is an ongoing battle."

Citing the "challenging" marketplace, the Random Reference division stepped back from the race in November, declaring that they'll no longer prepare any new dictionaries. (They will, however, keep in play all the 51 dictionaries currently in their catalogue, revising them as needed and marketing them aggressively, especially their college dictionary.) "Nothing has been more challenging for reference publishers than the instant global resources available to almost anyone," says Bonnie Ammer, head of the Random House Information Group. "We view this as good news, creating an even more inquisitive consumer." But, she says, "Now more than ever, general reference publishers must evaluate information needs and how successfully they are being met by these additional resources. The great opportunity for reference publishers is to capitalize on that 'need to know' with more focused publishing programs."

"Focus" is indeed the byword. At every level of reference publishing, not just dictionaries, editors and marketing directors are giving more scrutiny to consumers, trying to figure out what they want and how to give it to them. Says Grathwohl at Oxford, "We have to think carefully who's going to be buying this book and what they want out of it. This is not a bad thing. It makes us become more focused."

Publishers have found different ways to express this heightened attentiveness. At Merriam-Webster, which was up for sale this year by parent company Encyclopedia Britannica but is now off the block, they had to work harder, think more creatively and solve problems that didn't before exist. "The challenge is you need a broader range of products to succeed than you did 10 or 15 years ago," says John Morse, president and publisher. "There is not one market big enough to sustain you. Ten or so years ago the college-level desk dictionary was our major product and a major part of sales. Now you need products for all ages, all price points, in all formats. It makes our publishing program more complex."

Part of this complexity is the Merriam-Webster line of bilingual Spanish-English dictionaries designed for native speakers of Spanish, including a mass market paperback edition with an introduction to English grammar in Spanish and full coverage of English irregular verbs (Diccionario Español-Inglés Merriam-Webster, Mar. 2001); hardcover and mass market paperback versions of Merriam-Webster's 1998 Spanish-English Dictionary; and the forthcoming pocket version of the regular Spanish-English dictionary (summer 2002), which the house will pitch as a perfect traveling companion. "Meeting the needs of non-native speakers of English within the marketplace is a new area of opportunity for growth for reference books," Morse says.

At Houghton Mifflin, marketing director Nancy Grant discusses a similarly multifaceted reference program, which is driven in large part by the highly competitive marketplace and, as she puts it, "the need to keep up." HM, publisher of the American Heritage Dictionary, has a multiplicity of dictionaries for consumers across a broad spectrum of interests, abilities, languages and income levels. One of the big initiatives at the press is the release this past fall of the American Heritage Spanish Dictionary line--five dictionaries, from full-size hardcover to inexpensive pocket editions. HM is also getting ready to release The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition (Apr. 2002), the first new edition since 1993. Grant tells PW that the college dictionary is the anchor for the reference division, and its marketing budget will be the biggest of any book HM does next year, with the exception of the Tolkien books tied to The Lord of the Rings movie.

At Checkmark Books, the trade division of Facts on File, sales director Paul Conklin says they look more closely now at categories for those that make sense, and for those areas where the house has a track record. "Science history, history, current interest, these work for us. We don't create demand and then print for it and then get returns. The biggest challenge is consumer marketing, and we've almost given up on it. Short of looking for publicity, the challenge is to hit the nail on the head by publishing into the right category and not getting burned on returns." Going after the current interest in the military, Checkmark will bring out Charles W. Sasser's Encyclopedia of the Navy Seals (July), an A-Z reference about the elite fighting unit. Promotional efforts will target history and military markets as well as general readers via review-copy mailing, direct mail promotion, possible radio interviews and special sales efforts. "No one title has to be a juggernaut for us," Conklin says. "We publish where we think there's a demand."

Langenscheidt Publishing does likewise. It has identified a demographic market in baby boomers and angles the company's maps and reference guides "aggressively" to them, says president Stuart Dolgins. "We publish a large-print U.S. road atlas with type that is 34% larger than standard type," he says. "Anecdotally, we're hearing from one major book chain and a warehouse club that this $21.95 atlas is outselling the less expensive standard version. We expect this trend to continue."

Coverage: Broad-based, or Specific?

One rule that has changed in reference is that "definitive" is no longer considered an automatic selling point. "Complete" too often means bulky, expensive and, ironically, crammed with too much information, at least for a trade audience. The specialized Timber Press, for instance, which publishes exclusively for gardeners, horticulturists and botanists, cites the challenge of balancing content to satisfy their desired audience as one of its biggest concerns. How much text should there be compared to the number of photographs? How detailed should that text be? "Do we want to publish a book that will be exceptionally comprehensive at the expense of frightening away a less serious audience?" muses publicist Maureen Tingley. "Or do we treat the subject more lightly, with a purely horticultural audience in mind?"

Timber's solution is to offer both types of books: heavyweight and thorough, like John Bryan's Bulbs, with 900 pages and 1,171 color photos (revised edition due in April); and something that provides an overview, like Barbara Lawton's Mints, with 268 pages, 61 color photos and 46 line drawings (Mar.). Timber doesn't worry about the Net; most of its customers, Tingley says, want their information in print--and in duplicate too, one copy for the clean, dry living room, one to keep in the muddy potting shed.

Other publishers continue to devise ways to make their databases more digestible (and affordable), and to enhance the product they have in order to extend its reach. In the first category, Oxford has tailored one of its flagship works to the budget of the average consumer. Using as a starting point its massive American National Biography, Oxford invited 50 celebrities to scan the database and select their own favorite person. (With its 18,000 historical figures described in 25 million words in 25 volumes, the ANB seems prohibitive for home consumption, but it's long been a staple in libraries and institutions; it's also available by subscription at The chosen profiles were packaged together with an introduction by Mark C. Carnes as Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books (June 2002). Similarly, Ancient Gods Speak (May 2002) draws its material from Oxford's authoritative and massive Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt.

Are these spinoff books legitimate references? Yes, according to Oxford's Grathwohl. "Major references are so general interest, everyone's slipping through the net. The overarching big reference work may not be viable for the trade." (Oxford calculates that its New Oxford American Dictionary, out last October, which drew on a 20-million-word database to come up with a complete and accurate picture of contemporary American English and usage, represents more than 50 "editor years" work.)

Going the route of expansion to find new audiences, Abrams has taken two of its classic reference works, Janson's History of Art, Sixth Edition, by H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson (Apr. 2001) and Marilyn Stokstad's Art History, Second Edition (Nov. 2001) and pushed them in slightly new directions, with a proliferation of color, sidebars, informative graphics, condensed historical and religious data and, in the case of Janson, a Web site directory. The results, says Julia Moore, director of textbook publishing, both "equip and excite the reader"--especially those who weren't necessarily aware of the books before. "We realized a few years ago," Moore says, "that we could reach beyond students by transforming our books across the board for lay society." Now, she says, both books--slipcased, each at $95--are promoted as resources for special-interest buyers, especially travelers, collectors and the gift-giving public.

The Abrams books defy the wisdom that buyers are especially price-sensitive when it comes to reference. "People are willing to pay for what they get," Moore says, adding that the History of Art has sold more than four million copies in 14 languages over the years.

To step back to the "definitive" side again, Maikowski at NYU Press offers a view from the perspective of a small house trying to develop an authoritative work. "The big challenge," he says, "is how to develop the expertise to execute the work--how to manage different schedules for complex manuscripts." He cites the American Irish Desk Reference (Sept. 2002), a comprehensive one-volume guide to the history, culture and contributions of the Irish in America, as an example of a book with intensive demands. Unlike the usual 300-400 page trade book, the tome comes with lots of apparatuses--cross references, indexes, glossaries, color photos, "all the things that make a reference work so valuable--and getting the expertise to work this out on the technical end is the challenge. You need a project editor for each book, and typically small houses like ours don't have a project editor."

And what about publicity for reference works? "That's the biggest challenge of all," Maikowski claims. "With specialty, high-price-point books, how do you write a compelling press release, how do you do a media kit, who do you send it to? You need a specialized reference publicist, and you don't always have one." For the press's three-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, a condensed version of a 30-volume work published only in Hebrew, edited by Shmuel Spector and the late Geoffrey Wigoder (Nov. 2001), Maikowski knew the kind of advance attention he wanted, but finding someone with the skills to handle this "new species of book" was difficult.

But even a less massive work places large demands on publishers. "The biggest risk in publishing these big works of reference," says Routledge marketing director Ron Longe, "is the cost and time that goes into producing the book. So it is crucial that we know our markets and competition before we even sign the project." Routledge's search for niche markets has led it this past year to two "lifestyle" reference works, Real Life at the White House, published to coincide with the 200-year anniversary of the White House and the presidential inauguration, and The World of Caffeine. A third title, The Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, edited by physicist and science writer James Trefil, is being supported by a $35,000 marketing campaign to bookstores and public school libraries through direct mail, targeted advertising, print publicity and Internet marketing. The key to keeping these books moving, Longe says, is continuous promotion. "For the White House book, we went after a lot of the history market, the food market, the home decor market. We have plans to do a paperback in time for BEA next spring, and we'll push it again then. With the caffeine book, when the press died out we came up with a new angle and repitched it. We will keep the book in hardcover a while longer, then do a paper edition next fall and repromote it all over again."

If it's difficult to find a right balance between content and information, it's equally challenging to find innovative ways to present information for today's visually oriented readers. DK, which created a signature look for its reference titles, says its biggest challenge is to deliver information in a fun and exciting manner. "Information doesn't have to be stodgy," says sales and marketing v-p Therese Burke. One case in point, she notes, is the lavish and oversize Animal (Oct. 2001), edited by David Burnie and Don E. Wilson, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian, packaged with an interactive CD-ROM. She adds that DK is availing itself of Amazon's new "Look Inside" program that enables Web browsers to see what the presentation looks like. The 624-page, slipcased volume, four years in the making, is an illustrated guide to more than 2,000 species of animals; patterned photographic "tabs" unify the chapters that are devoted to each class in the animal kingdom, and generous use of photography creates a new style for DK--what publicist Cathy Melnicki calls "a more fluid look." The book has just gone into a second printing.

Going for Series and Branding Programs

Skirting such issues raised by one-off projects are publishing programs and series. Agreeing with others who note the need to target specific interests rather than go after broad-stroke reference works, Bruce Bender, managing director of the Citadel Press imprint at Kensington Publishing, says his house tries to build series because "it's easier saleswise if we have an example that has performed well." And, he notes, "maintaining sales in the reference area is becoming more and more about how material is presented. A strong point of view seems to have an advantage over more generalized or wide-ranging approaches." Citadel's 100 Series (the most recent entry is Deborah G. Felder's The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time, Oct. 2001) and its Bookshelf Series (Clifford Mason's The African-American Bookshelf: 50 Must Reads from Before the Civil War Through Today, Dec. 2001) fit the bill on both counts. "All our books," says Bender, "give people a starting point, a platform they can expand on."

Graphics Arts Center Publishing Company, located in Anchorage, also finds a series formula an effective way to publish. Its Alaska Almanac (the 25th anniversary edition was out last month) has spawned four sister titles--for Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Colorado. Replete with statistics, the books are marketed for writers, librarians "and anyone who wants to know the details of the state," says sales and marketing associate Angie Zbornik. Each year the house targets a different group--travel writers, schools, real estate agents. "The biggest challenge in selling and marketing the line is in focusing on one audience," Zbornik says. "The biggest challenge in publishing is the minute details--gathering information, bugging people to send back updates. Everything changes each year."

In a similar vein, those who can, brand--for the long-established reason that name brands sell well and confer authority. One example: The Chase Calendar of Events, which covers 12,000 events chronologically day by day, sells consistently and in consistent numbers for Contemporary/McGraw-Hill, says v-p and group manager Philip Ruppel. (It's clearly found its niche: the 45th annual edition was released in October.) Their Spanish dictionary line is co-published with Vox, a Barcelona-based dictionary developer now owned by Vivendi. (Highlights for 2002 include The Vox Spanish Phrasebook and Dictionary and the Vox New World Spanish and English Dictionary.) And there was a new "alignment" with a popular Web site,, for last month's publication of The KidsHealth Guide for Parents by Steven A. Downshen, M.D., Neil Isenberg, M.D. and Elizabeth Bass, a guide to pregnancy, birth and children's health through age five. "The challenge in this soft retail market," says Ruppel, "is to distinguish your brand. There are not as many opportunities as there are for frontlist titles, so you have to make your own."

Perseus, too, has found a successful brand in its association with the Associated Press, whose style guide, The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (a fully revised edition appeared in June), it has published since 1980. "The challenge for reference publishing is to pair a preexisting brand name with the need," says senior editor Marnie Cochran. "The Associated Press is the gold standard of journalism style, and their name is what sells our reference books." In February, Perseus will add a second title bearing that brand when it publishes The Associated Press Guide to Internet Research and Reporting.

The Ahearn name is what sells Putnam's Collected Books: The Guide to Values (Nov. 2001 for the 2002 edition) by Allen and Patricia Ahearn. The book is the largest and most comprehensive price guide to market values of collectible books, and has become a standard tool for antiquarian book dealers and rare book collectors.

Lacking a name, a brand or an author to glamorize a reference book to the public, reference works are often on their own. At Houghton Mifflin, executive editor Joseph Pickett bemoans the difficulties their dictionaries face. "We make them the best we can, give them appeal, make them useful and multidimensional, beautiful even, but it's hard to explain all this in an ad or a sound bite. So it's hard to make them stand out. We did lots of publicity for the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. It's easy to talk about new words, but the usage program is different and it's hard to describe a usage panel. Dictionaries aren't reviewed that often and when they are, they tend to be reviewed by columnists, who don't give readers much guidance about the features. Our books are competitively priced--$25 for a college dictionary is an unbelievable bargain in a consumer product--but consumers don't realize it."

What every publisher wants, of course, is for its books to become indispensable to its target audience, must-buys, like the Ahearn--what Tim O'Reilly at O'Reilly Associates refers to as the challenge to get from "optional to essential, where essential is a checkoff item on someone's budget line." O'Reilly sees the conversion to "essential" for his company happening online. Though print books are still at the core of O'Reilly's computer publishing program, its new venture, an online concept called Safari, takes on the challenge of building a subscription-based online information service that isn't tied to a single vendor's products, but instead is built out of the intellectual property that a group of publishers has previously packaged in books.

Its pricing structure is based on a graduated scale depending on how many books and how much access the subscriber chooses in any particular month. "Our model is based on conveying an all-you-can-eat feeling without giving away the store," O'Reilly says. The initial program will cover technology titles; once the service has become "essential," he says, it will offer books in other areas. "It is prudent for any reference publisher to think about how their revenue stream may be challenged," O'Reilly says. To him, it makes sense to think about making editorial content an "added value" in some other product, that is, finding ways to license titles or a list.

O'Reilly's clarion call is for the need to take another look at what reference books offer, and how they might serve their function in a changed era. Others too mention the need to reconceptualize these books. From the concern that too broad a field means that the books serve no one, to the recognition that our relationship to paper and ink has changed and that even libraries, the traditional repository of multivolume reference works, are growing ever more comfortable with electronic resources, print publishers stand at the brink of a new landscape. O'Reilly urges publishers to think of their mission as guarding not over books but over information. The biggest challenge for publishers," he says, "is to get out of thinking about books as containers, and start thinking about them as information, that is, what's in the containers." If publishers want to continue to be players in the reference field, he says, "They have to have an online strategy."

And then there's the opposing view, voiced by Stuart Dolgins at Langenscheidt. Despite the Internet challenge, Dolgins opines, there will always be a market for books. "They are portable and economic. They don't need batteries. They go anywhere, anytime, and they provide the greatest value for the money, and that especially includes reference works."