Merriam-Webster—New Cell-ing Outlets?

Asked about the state of reference publishing these days, John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster, is convincingly optimistic—with ample reason, it appears. "It's a very good time for us," he says. "We launched the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July, and everything about it has exceeded our expectations. Our first printing was about 500,000 copies, and we're going back now for a third printing, which means we're up to nearly one million copies in print. It's selling two or three times the rate it was selling last summer." Morse attributes much of the success to the company's decision to bundle book, CD and access to its Web site in a single product.

Reference publishers can't treat their books with a simple frontlist strategy, Morse points out. "You have to commit to a 12- to 18-month launch window. You launch for back-to-school. You launch again for holiday-buying, for second semester, for graduation." A house has to persevere, he says, because competition remains stiff. "The players have changed, but reference is still a category that attracts publishers. There is perennial interest in the product, and it looks tempting, but reference publishing is a brutal business if you're not prepared to play it really well. Even for a 170-year-old company like Merriam-Webster, getting it exactly right is not easy."

New titles for next spring and summer are Merriam-Webster's How to Use Your Dictionary, ...Intermediate Thesaurus and ...Pocket French-English Dictionary. While all three complement previous M-W publications, Morse notes that they respond to calls from the marketplace. The first two involve younger school students and the last addresses both ESL and EFL learners, all of whom are thus encouraged to establish a bond with Merriam-Webster products. "The biggest single thing that ESL students want is a lot of example phrases," says Morse, "because they convey the meaning almost as much as a definition, which itself is kind of an abstraction. We're taking the page count up significantly by adding more examples."

Since the 11th Collegiate has apparently exploited new technologies successfully, Morse is sanguine about the future as well. "We see growth in other electronic delivery media," he says, "even up to the point of having the dictionary available on your cell phone. We're going to see a flowering of devices to further incorporate the dictionary into home life, school life and work life. But all indications point to the fact that print will remain the preferred method for getting information about language. People love their print dictionaries." —Robert Dahlin

Checkmark Books—Chasing the Consumer Dollar

Laurie Likoff, editorial director for the Checkmark imprint of Facts on File, takes a pragmatic approach to current economic improvements. "The economy's recovering, and people are more optimistic," she says, "but I don't necessarily think that means the publishing market will come back. Things have changed forever. Consumer tastes have changed. It's a different generation."

Likoff, who has held her current position for seven years, tells PW, "Today the main challenge for a reference publisher is competition for consumers' dollars. Look at books as part of the entertainment dollars somebody spends. In the last few years there's been such an outgrowth of CDs and multimedia, and those products now compete with books."

Another inescapable factor in today's market is the Internet, which has changed the way people consider reference books as well. Likoff says, "Print has to do other things for them now—whether that's offering depth of content or continuity of voice or referencing value. It has to have something you can't get in a two-minute snippet online."

Still, Likoff is adjusting Checkmark to the current new reality rather than gazing nostalgically backward, to the days when, as she puts it, "people would go into a bookstore and come out with armloads of books." As a result, the imprint is sticking to its specialties, which include careers, education, health and desk reference. This year Facts on File acquired the career guides publisher Ferguson Publishing, and in the past few months Ferguson titles—such as 25 Jobs That Have It All and Great Careers in 2 Years: The Associate Degree Option—were incorporated into the Checkmark list. In the past that list has included as many as 59 titles; currently it has 48.

And while Checkmark uses a backlist-heavy model with typical first print runs of 5,000 to 15,000 copies and keeps its books—most of them paperbacks—in print for five to seven years on average, the imprint isn't above pegging the launch of a title to a specific date or event. Out this month is the Encyclopedia of the Lewis & Clark Expedition in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of that mission.

"It's always good to hang your hat on an event that catches people's attention," says Likoff. "This is opportunistic in that way, but it also fits with our emphasis on history. In some ways it's typical of what we do: accessible reference that's reliable, on a subject that not everybody else is doing." —Natalie Danford

Houghton Mifflin—Not Just for Grownups

"Even though the economy has had a hard go of it over the last few years, we're encouraged. We're still going strong," says Joseph Pickett, executive editor, Houghton Mifflin Dictionaries. Continuing to make the most of HM's American Heritage brand name, next June the house releases the first edition of The American Heritage College Thesaurus and a fourth edition of The American Heritage College Dictionary. The latter for the first time will be packaged with a loadable CD-ROM containing both the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the firm's thesaurus. Further exploiting today's new technologies, the college dictionary will also be available on wireless handheld devices through Harvard Language Co.'s PocketLingo line.

"A dictionary presents the lexicon at a point in time," Pickett explains. "It identifies usage and changing attitudes. What's shocking in one decade can become acceptable in another, and [as a source of new words] the Internet didn't even exist 10 years ago. We have a panel of experts to consult about what is acceptable in standard usage."

After citing the effort required in the production of authoritative reference works, Pickett says, "When you think of it, the price of dictionaries is very, very low. When you publish a college dictionary at $26 or $27—which you have to do because of the competition—it's an incredible bargain because it contains hundreds of thousands of pieces of information. The quality of dictionaries on the market today is exceptionally high."

Reference opportunities exist beyond standard dictionaries, too, says Pickett. Coming in April from HM are The History of Science and Technology: A Browser's Guide to the Great Discoveries, Inventions and the People Who Made Them from the Dawn of Time to Today by Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans. "We've learned that people like to have subsets of the lexicon, which we've offered with The American Heritage Student Science Dictionaryand The American Heritage Children's Science Dictionary. I have kids myself, and adult dictionaries that parents have at home are not all that helpful with school projects. Actually, some of our books have been surprises even to us. We didn't realize that the market for a children's thesaurus would be so strong, but these books sell because people now want resources for kids at home. You want your kid to learn how to use reference books, to learn how to study on his or her own." —Robert Dahlin

Routledge Reference—In Print and Online

The focus of Routledge Reference, which includes the Fitzroy Dearborn imprint, is scholarly, and the house specializes in multivolume sets in established and emerging academic areas. The more comprehensive, the better, says marketing director Elizabeth Sheehan, noting such titles as the Encyclopedia of American Folk Artedited by Gerard C. Wertkin (Routledge, Dec., one volume at $125) the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture edited by R. Stephen Sennott (Fitzroy Dearborn, Dec., three volumes at $395 through Mar. 2004, $495 thereafter) and the recently published Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising edited by John McDonough and Karen Egolf (three volumes at $385).

Because these multivolume sets represent a significant investment for many libraries, the company's primary audience, the current marketing strategy relies heavily on online technology. In fact, dedicated Web sites are integral to the treatment of each reference work. "It's still a print world, and direct mail is still the primary way of reaching our target audience," Sheehan says. "But a little mailing brochure can't convey the scope of a book like the Encyclopedia of Advertising, which pulls together the whole field of advertising. We do snippets in a brochure, but then we create a product-marketing Web site with a full list of entries A—Z, and a list of all the contributors. We post five or six representative examples in PDF format so potential investors can see it before making such a weighty commitment."

Direct mail in the form of postcards go out to Routledge's in-house database, collected mostly at trade shows, and after that there are e-mail follow-ups. "We are always worried about being perceived as spamming, but overall we have had a good reaction," Sheehan says. "People like the e-mails. We have very few requests to be taken off. The librarians see it as we do, as a tool, not a spam. We try to give as much information as possible so people in time of budget cuts can make an informed decision." Using a subscription model successfully under way with other online reference works, Routledge will launch two "suites" of reference databases next year: one in media and communications and one in religion.

"I can't think of a more exciting time in publishing," Sheehan says. "You have to do more so there's the stress of that, but you can do more. We can see who's using the product and what they're using. That's what drives what we change and add." Despite the company's technological enthusiasm, there are no plans to eliminate printed volumes. "There is still a need for books," Sheehan says, adding that there's a definite need for online resources as well. "Like with marketing, there's a need for both." —Suzanne Mantell

Scarecrow Press—Times A-Changin'

"It's time for a renaissance," says Edward Kurdyla, newly appointed v-p, publisher of Scarecrow Press, a member of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group in Lanham, Md. He was referring to the look of Scarecrow's books, which are about to undergo a major overhaul, including the addition of four-color covers and interiors, and the design of the logo, which hasn't been modified since the company was founded a half-century ago, but it's an apt expression for other changes afoot. "For 2003, we'll end up publishing around 165 books. Next year we've budgeted for 190," says Kurdyla, adding that he expects much slower growth after 2004.

Known primarily as an academic publisher—Scarecrow also publishes a journal for YA librarians, Voice of Youth Advocates—the press is looking to extend its presence in the trade, currently about 40% of the list, and to narrow its focus. "Over the past few years our music line has expanded both in number and quality, and it covers everything, from the number-one reference books used by conductors to books on individual artists," notes Kurdyla, who plans to continue to expand this area with books such as The Complete Lyrics of P.G. Wodehouse(Mar.), edited by Barry Day. Other key genres Kurdyla identifies are: film, theater and other performing arts; library and information science; religion; general reference; and the social sciences, especially history, political science and military history. "We will, and we already are, moving toward more reference books and fewer purely academic monographs," says Kurdyla. Many of the press's bestselling reference works are part of the Historical Dictionaries series; next year Scarecrow will publish 40 books in that series alone, including the Historical Dictionary of Iraq (Jan.) by Edmund A. Ghareeb and Beth K. Dougherty.

As former editorial director for Grolier Electronic, Kurdyla regards electronic reference books, a combination of subscription databases and e-books, as key to the success of any reference publisher and is in the process of building a Scarecrow Electronic Reference Web site, which will serve as an umbrella for individual reference sites. The first, which will be ready sometime next year, is being written by crime historian Jay Robert Nash. "He's been writing about crime for 40 years and is the author of the multivolume Encyclopedia of World Crime: Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement (Crime Books)," explains Kurdyla, who calls the upcoming crime site "the most comprehensive product site in this area." Nash's most recent print reference, the two-volume The Great Pictorial History of World Crime(list price: $245), is due from Scarecrow next month. —Judith Rosen

Oxford University Press—Marking 75 Referential Years

What do you do with an old, familiar behemoth that is enormously bulky and terribly expensive, but also an indispensable tool for anyone interested in the English language? You lower the price and make it easier to get, natch! And of course you offer it online.

Oxford University Press has played around before with major promotions and publicity campaigns for its showpiece work, the Oxford English Dictionary, but the current offerings in honor of the project's 75th anniversary step up the deals and discounts. For the first time, the price on the 20-volume set this year dipped below $1,000 (to $895), and a drop-ship system has been in place since last spring to enable booksellers to sell the set from posters, postcards and order forms rather than from the space-consuming volumes themselves. "Bookstores don't have to have the responsibility of having the full set, but they can still have an OED presence," says editorial director Casper Grathwohl, whose early pronouncement on the experimental program is that it has worked very well, with retail sales running 50% higher than last year.

The drop-ship program is of limited duration (set to expire at the end of this month), but the effects may spin off onto other projects, such as Richard Taruskin's much anticipated six-volume Oxford History of Western Music, due next year. "For an ongoing project like the OED, the 75th anniversary is a great opportunity," Grathwohl says, emphasizing that it's a constant challenge to maintain a profile for the reference work but stressing the "living," changing nature of the enterprise as one of its strong selling points. "We actively look for ways to bring attention to the program," Grathwohl says. One surefire way are the quarterly updates Oxford releases to the press listing the hundreds of new words that make it first to the online version—Homer Simpson's "doh!" or "Joe Sixpack" or "bling bling." According to Grathwohl, "This sort of thing, where low culture meets high culture, is very captivating for the general public."

Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything, about the history of the making of the OED, commissioned by Oxford and released in October, raised the dictionary's profile and stimulated sales, Grathwohl reports. Next year the paper edition will provide a second round of publicity opportunities. "We're thinking about how do you get younger people excited about the OED and about their language. We're thinking about word origins and word histories for schools. So much happens in the English language. There's always an opportunity to tie what's going on to a lexical opportunity, especially so in this anniversary year." An interesting side note: individual subscriptions for the OED online (currently $29 per month) are the most rapidly growing subscription type. —Suzanne Mantell

Penguin Group (USA)—Making Book on Brands

Penguin Group (USA) has a simple philosophy when it comes to reference publishing: Do it big, or don't do it at all."We see it as a real opportunity if you have the right book and we're very actively trying to find new frontlist titles that we can really publish very aggressively," says Jane von Mehren, associate publisher and editor-in-chief.

Penguin, she reports, has increased its focus on reference in recent years. That doesn't mean more titles, but expectations of higher sales per book. The company's formula for raking in reference sales is to choose a strong reference niche and partner with an authoritative brand. It's an approach exemplified by Monster Careers, on which Penguin collaborated with founder Jeff Taylor. The book, set to be published in May, has an announced first printing of 250,000 copies. Career planning fits Penguin's requirement for a robust reference area, while Monster. com has become a leading cyber-destination for job seekers.

It's hard to find new reference categories, or even subjects that don't already have a number of publishers competing for sales, says von Mehren, so partnering with a well-known brand enables a book to stand out from the others. The New York Times Almanac 2004 is another example of how Penguin is using this branding strategy, leveraging the name of the prestigious news source. Penguin has published the almanac since 1998 and sells about 100,000 copies a year.

Poets and Writersmagazine doesn't approach the widespread name recognition of the Times. But to a certain audience—writers and would-be writers—it's a valued source of information and inspiration. Capitalizing on the magazine's following, Penguin has teamed up with Poets and Writers to publish The Practical Writer, coming in March with a 30,000-copy first printing. How-to books on writing and getting published continue to make up one of the most consistently solid reference categories, says von Mehren.

Titles like Monster Careers and The Practical Writer smudge the line between reference and self-help. Defying the image of reference books as imposing tomes of arcane facts, these books are more likely to get dog-eared than dusty. The same is true for The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs and DVDs: 2003/4 Edition. Penguin has turned these guides into a franchise, with frequently updated titles focusing on classical and jazz recordings. "That's one thing we're very focused on," says von Mehren. "We're doing books for real people, real consumers." —Karen Holt