The good news in this category: the palpable unease among reference publishers a few short years ago that traditional reference works were a thing of the past has lessened significantly. The better news: in its place is confidence in the sustaining life of the book.

"Even in this electronic world, to get the kind of attention we want and to introduce the book to specialized markets, we needed to do it with a traditional book project," says Nick Philipson, executive editor of business titles at Perseus, explaining the strategy behind the just-published reference work Business: The Ultimate Resource.

According to Philipson, the decision to invest in a massive reference work (2,208 pages) was based on the concept of a "living database," exhaustively established and then kept fresh with newly commissioned material and enriched by feedback from users on a dedicated Web site, setting the stage not just for the flagship book but for updates, spinoffs and other projects down the road. "The initial plan included development of a whole series of books over several years," Philipson says. A few of these—Best Practice: Ideas and Insights from the World's Foremost Thinkers; The Ultimate Business Dictionary; The Big Book of Business Quotations: 5,000 Observations on Commerce, Work, Finance, and Management; and The Best Business Books Ever: The 100 Most Influential Management Books You'll Never Have Time to Read—will appear early next year. In Philipson's words, "I can't think of any other project we've invested so heavily in."

Business: The Ultimate Resource is a good example of how trade publishers have made peace with the electronic enemy; it also shows how they have devised ways to turn technology to advantage. "One of the biggest challenges we face is keeping material relevant and fresh," Philipson tells PW. "This book has three million words. How do you prevent them from becoming stale? The living database is our way." The key to the Web site is a monthly newsletter with freshly commissioned material for each issue.

In a publishing year notable for its shakiness, the word from reference publishers is mostly buoyant, at least in the trade divisions. (In the library and school channels. sales overall have been flat or sluggish.) "The good news is that people don't make it an either/or," says John Morse, president and publisher at Merriam-Webster. "It's both/and. It's an online dictionary at work, but a print dictionary at home at night. Sometimes you use one, sometimes the other." Sales of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary had a 17% increase this year, while use of the Web site is up 40%. Says Morse, "It's been a phenomenal year for reference books."

Good sales in this category this year have fed an underlying optimism about the continued viability of a product that looked for a while as if it might be obsolete. "I think many consumers have realized that it is far easier to open a dictionary, for instance, than to boot up the computer simply to look up a word," says Megan Newman, editorial director of HarperResource. Newman's position derives in part from sales of the company's bilingual dictionaries—ahead of last year by 250%.

At Square One Publishers, publisher Rudy Shur defends books against the Internet, which he characterizes as breaking down into the Good (disseminating accurate and up-to-date information), the Bad (containing slipshod or incorrect information) and the Ugly (too obvious to explain). "When it comes right down to it," Shur says, "I really think that most responsibly intelligent people will defer to a reference book every time. As a publisher, this not only keeps us in business—it demands the very best from us in preparing and presenting the written word."

Thinking Lean and Mean

Luckily for people like Shur, a depressed market is not the worst time for reference books. "When the marketplace isn't friendly, you look at how you can be lean and mean," says Casper Grathwohl, editorial director at Oxford University Press. "It encourages us to shed any fat. It makes us think more strategically and creatively." Accordingly, he adds that Oxford is tightening its list, looking at what it has and making sure it is publishing those books well. "The number of titles doesn't matter," Grathwohl reports. "It's the health of some of the anchoring copyrights."

Facts on File's consumer trade division, Checkmark Books, is also looking at its list critically, rejecting ideas that would take the publisher out on a limb, even if the results could theoretically be spectacular. "We aren't looking for the home run," explains sales director Paul Conklin. "We like customers coming back year after year." In 2001, Conklin says, the house was "walloped" with Ingram returns, so this year it's in bounce-back mode. "We've been burned on trade titles. We've created demand and ended up sitting on inventory. We can control what we publish, but we can't make people buy our books."

Conklin notes the benefits of series in a tough economic climate. "Every year there is a new title and a revised title," he says, referring to the house's Career Opportunities line. "It's easy to market. The reps like it. We tie backlist in with frontlist titles." Facts on File is also bringing out a massive new work this month, The Encyclopedia of American History, an 11-volume set intended for libraries and other institutions.

Fred Nachbaur, marketing director for arts and humanities in trade reference at Routledge, likes the lack of risk with series titles, especially when there's a well-orchestrated sales campaign. "If I'm selling Semiotics: The Basics, and Shakespeare: The Basics sold well, it's so much easier," he says. "The biggest challenge in the trade area is getting books in and making sure they sell through. With a series, you can build on a previous success." Even so, Nachbaur claims that it's more difficult than ever to forecast print runs. "Booksellers' buys are more conservative than in the past. The market is volatile, and you can't go by old assumptions."

For Diane Graves Steele, publisher of consumer For Dummies at Wiley, the economic downturn has had some beneficial effects. For one thing, it's led book buyers to pay more attention to the core topics of their lives—which happen to correspond to many of the subjects covered by the For Dummies titles (with their slogan "Reference for the rest of us"). For Dummies sales, Steele reports, are up this year over last by about 7%.

Branding the Brands

To combat the fierce competition for shrinking selling space, publishers with strong brands are fortifying their identities. The fourth edition of Houghton Mifflin's American Heritage College Dictionary, published last April, was redesigned to carry out the themes established by other books in the line. The results have dramatically helped the publisher increase brand awareness of American Heritage, reports Nancy Grant, HM's director of reference marketing. Publishing the college dictionary early in the year was a strategic move that also added exposure for the brand. "We shipped in time for graduation rather than in July for back-to-school publication," Grant explains, "and got two big promo times out of it. The second thing was we dramatically changed the jacket. We made a commitment to a branding line look."

In a tight economy, foreign connections are a handy way to contain costs. Perseus joined forces with Bloomsbury on its giant business tome, paying that house for the American rights to the book while letting Bloomsbury underwrite the research. DK, whose ultra-clean reference look has become well-known, benefits from the company's worldwide publishing power, using it to cut paper and manufacturing costs for lavish projects. HarperResource looks to Harper UK for titles, leaving the U.S. division freer to concentrate on sales and marketing—which has taken advantage of that position. "This fall," notes Newman, "we decided to put some marketing muscle behind some of our core reference titles—our bilingual dictionaries, Roget's, some of our classic writing guides, etc.—and the results were wonderful. It shouldn't surprise us, but when you can get good books right under the nose of the consumer, they actually sell." She adds that the publisher has new brochures "for our reps to use for the sell-in. We've been banging on booksellers' doors, and the time and attention have begun to pay off. We're not reinventing the wheel, just refreshing and refining it constantly." Still, the toughest challenge, Newman says, is to find new sales channels. "I would love to get a copy of our French dictionary on every seat on an Air France flight," she quips.

On the editorial side, the challenge, as ever, is to find a good project and produce it well. But DK senior publishing v-p Chuck Lang identifies a problem unique to the field: how to find a book with frontlist pizzazz that can evolve into a steady backlist staple—since backlist staples are often staid tomes. By contrast, Lang says, DK's massive picture reference Animal, published in 2001, has the kind of glamour that sticks in customers' minds, with a cover that demands attention and a dynamic text design that reflects the company's philosophy that the look of a reference book is crucial to its ability to capture a wide audience. According to Lang, Animal has seen a 20% sales increase to date this year over its 2001 figures.

On another front, Lang notes that atlases have been vigorous sellers in every format—DK's Compact World Atlas, originally published in July 2001, has sold more than 55,000 copies in the past six months. "The less sexier parts of the bookstore are trending differently than they used to because of the economy and world events," Lang asserts. "We are under the impression that perhaps with so much world drama going on, consumers are buying more nonfiction and reference books to learn about the places, people and events they're hearing about."

Though the electronic challenge is presently under control, one of its by-products is a sort of chaos, as traditional reference producers try to come up with reference works—in every possible format, price point and delivery method—for an age range from cradle to grave. "You need a whole line of products," says Morse at Merriam-Webster. "You need the book, the CD-ROM, the online version, the handheld format. There are the needs of language learners, ESL, people learning Spanish, third graders, 12th graders, college students—everyone comes with a slightly different set of requirements. It's fun, but it's a big thing to address in a serious way the language needs of such a wide variety of people. There are many new genres of dictionaries. The challenge is to maintain name-brand recognition and market share."

Getting Fresh

The demand to keep up with what other publishers are offering is indeed intense, says HM's Grant. "We need to constantly develop programs that offer competitive products for the marketplace. Dictionaries are inherently a backlist category. The challenge is to make the books appear fresh, to draw people's attention to them."

"Freshened" titles are on a lot of publishers' and editors' minds. Among the "freshened" reference titles that have recently appeared is Facts on File/Checkmark's The Complete Retirement Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Safeguard Your Money, Your Health, and Your Independence (June) by Peter J. Strauss and Nancy M. Lederman, an extensively revised edition of a 1996 staple by the same authors called The Elder Law Handbook: A Legal and Financial Survival Guide for Caregivers and Seniors. "We wanted to get 'Law' out of the title, and make the book accessible to its target audience," says Paul Conklin.

Another such work is DK's just-released The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers, a complete reworking of a title created by DK in London and published by Macmillan in the U.S. in the early '90s. "Perennially strong titles in evergreen categories either need to be updated every five years or they need to be recreated entirely," says DK's London-based publisher, Christopher Davis. "Five years is a generation in this market."

And Oxford has made it a crucial part of the editorial side of things to troll through the backlist looking for properties in need of refurbishing (see sidebar, p. 36). Another tactic at Oxford is what Grathwohl calls "repurposing." Invisible Giants, published last year, comprised favorite profiles from the massive Dictionary of American Biography chosen by celebrities from various fields. "We were very clear that the book was a selection from the DAB. It became a selling point: public thinkers pulled from the database those people they wanted. Repurposing became part of the sales pitch. We sold 15,000 copies. What I learned from this is that reference can still be sexy. The general public can still get excited about an idea and at its core it can be a reference work."

At Sterling Publishing, executive v-p Charles Nurnberg notes that the biggest challenge he faces is finding subjects that haven't been covered that he can do uniquely and well. One such project, National Anthems of the World, now in its 10th edition, has been a Sterling bestseller ever since its 1960 publication. "It has the music of every single country, with the words in the original language and in English," Nurnberg notes.

Nurnberg also says that while all books in Sterling's reference category have done fine this past year, it's been an especially good time for "strange" reference, including such titles as The Big Book of Being Rude, a follow-up to The Big Book of Filth, and the just published Big Book of National Insults. All of these are small, giftlike hardcovers priced at $9.95. "We used to be able to publish reference at high prices," Nurnberg says. "This is no longer true. It's difficult to turn out a superior editorial product at a price you can afford to reach an audience. It's a marketing challenge more than an editorial challenge. In reference, it's hard to produce a book inexpensively. And yet you have to find better and less expensive ways to do things." Perhaps someone could publish a reference book on that topic.