Competition from free online sources is an issue in almost every category of nonfiction, but nowhere more so than in reference. Why buy the dictionary when you can get the definition for free? Says Allison Jones, associate director Web and reference publishing at Palgrave Macmillan, “It's been a no-brainer for over a decade now that reference works well online: no sprained wrists lifting heavyweight volumes, easy searching, no eyestrain reading pages of closely argued prose on screen, the ability to update as necessary. The benefits are many and obvious.

Throw in new players like Wikipedia, creating high-quality reference material for free, and prospects for the traditional publisher of reference books begin to look bleak. And yet and yet, somehow reference books refuse to roll over and die.” As an example, Jones cites the recently revamped The Statesman's Yearbook, now a whopping 143 years old. The title has been morphed into what she terms “a hybrid product,” consisting of a traditional print version for the bookshelf and online access to text that is updated regularly and includes external links and archive material. “Suddenly the possibilities for research jump through the roof, yet the core function of an annual print publication continues undisturbed,” notes Jones.

“Reference publishers have to seduce consumers back to books,” says DK publisher Miriam Farbey. “Books as physical objects have to be instantly and incredibly arresting.” And the information in them must be rock solid, say Farbey and other publishers. Farbey adds, “A million entries on Google—who can tell what to read first or what's true?”

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, seems to be the attitude at National Geographic Books, where publisher Kevin Mulroy sees “an appetite for content-rich, accessible and competitively priced family references.” The National Geographic Visual History of the World uses a format that Mulroy says makes its interior “look more like something you'd see on a Web site than in a traditional reference book.”

Houghton Mifflin has made its landmark American Heritage dictionaries available in electronic format for decades. “We have a long-standing strategy of taking advantage of both the print and electronic markets, as each version offers distinct advantages and disadvantages,” says Marge Berube, publisher of dictionaries. This spring the house will publish an updated edition of The American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, with a free downloadable version with audio. Says Berube, “Thus the consumer can read it as a book, download it and read it on a screen, or hear it spoken.”

In a sign that print publishers aren't conceding the category to the Web, Princeton University Press is preparing to launch a reference program at the end of this year. (The press has published reference titles, but not under a single umbrella.) Anne Savarese, senior editor for reference, was brought on board to create the program and hopes to be publishing eight to 10 reference titles annually once the program is up and running. “We're looking at disciplines we're already strong in, where people will take the books seriously because of who we are and what we've published in the past,” says Savarese. These include mathematics and economics, as well as revised versions of longtime standards like The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which dates back to 1965.

So Where's the Category Headed?

As publishers compete with the Web, the once clearly drawn line between illustrated reference books and gift/coffee table books is also blurring, says Jonathan Metcalf, category publisher for reference at DK. As a result, he says, “The look and feel need to be as special as the content.” Metcalf points to the forthcoming The Sports Book, with a jacket constructed of Astroturf, and a new photographic portrait of China robed in red silk.

National Geographic, too, is positioning its Essential series of small hardcover books—$14.95 each with about 1,000 illustrations—as gift books. The initial title in the series, Essential Visual History of the World, debuted with a 50,000-copy first printing in the spring and has already returned to press for an additional 30,000 copies. In a similar vein, Houghton Mifflin offers its 100 Words series (the most recent is 100 Words to Make You Sound Smart), which are also small, reasonably priced books that counterbalance major but inevitably expensive dictionaries.

At Barron's, editorial director Mark Miele says that the house is looking at the intersection of reference and self-help. The newest trend in reference publishing, he says, “is giving people books on self-improvement and hobbies, including topics such as gardening, travel and nature. Reference books for enjoyment purposes and how one can improve their life is where reference is heading.”

A Reference Miscellany
Title: Shakespeare's Genealogies: Illustrated Plots & Family Trees for All 42 Works

Publisher: DK/Melcher (Oct.)

Author: Vanessa James

You need this book because... Old Bill wrote 39 plays that feature more than 1,000 characters. How else are you going to keep them all straight than with this 17-foot accordion foldout book? Publisher Charles Melcher says, “Vanessa James studies the characters through their bloodlines, which enables her to clarify the dynamics that underlie the drama, such as mistaken identities and familial conflicts, that are so relevant to Shakespeare's plots.”

Bet you didn't know... Cleopatra was a little too close to her siblings by modern standards—she married two of her brothers, Ptolemy XII and Ptolemy XIII, as was the custom for the Ptolemy rulers.

Title: The Daring Book for Girls

Publisher: Collins (Oct.)

Author: Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

You need this book because... What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and this title's precursor, The Dangerous Book for Boys, made bestseller lists in both the U.K. and the U.S. “This book will strike a similar chord with women and girls,” predicts associate publisher Margot Schupf. “Besides, everyone needs fun, adventure and learning in their lives.”

Bet you didn't know... You can rig two lemons and some wire to work as a battery with enough jolt to power a clock. Potatoes will work, too.

Title: The Book of Origins

Publisher: Plume (June)

Author: Trevor Homer

You need this book because... You're a know-it-all, or an aspiring know-it all or, as editor Emily Haynes puts it more politely, the possessor of a “curious mind.” This title details the beginnings of everything, from the pencil to the atom bomb. Haynes adds, “It's the perfect blend of history lite and quirky trivia.”

Bet you didn't know... In 1774, a hapless inventor came up with the “tobacco resuscitator kit... meant to revive victims of drowning, by injecting tobacco smoke into the rectum.” These helpful instruments were distributed along the banks of the Thames. In an unrelated earlier incident, No Smoking signs appeared in government buildings in Britain as early as 1629.

Title: The Rough Guide to the Brain

Publisher: Rough Guides (May)

Author: Barry J. Gibb

You need this book because... If you've got half a brain, you'll be curious about how that gray matter works. “Brain science has made giant leaps in the last decade, yet we understand the mechanics behind only a fraction of the brain's amazing abilities. What do we know about how the brain works, how have we manipulated its processes with experimental surgery and drugs, and what can we predict about the future of artificial intelligence and man-machine interfaces?” asks Sean Mahoney, Rough Guides U.S. reference editor.

Bet you didn't know... In the snotty ideas department, nasal phlegm was once widely believed to be a waste product of the brain. That was before Thomas Willis came along in the 1600s and published his seminal Cerebri Anatome. The science of neurology really began to blossom in the 1800s.
Sizing Things Up
Bigger is not always better with books, as printing large books raises all kinds of cost issues. But bigger volumes are the norm in the reference category, where books can easily run into multiple volumes and many hundreds of pages. “It's not getting any cheaper to produce books,” says Kevin Mulroy, publisher of National Geographic Books. “Paper costs even overseas are going up as much as 8% next year.”

As a result, when National Geographic publishes a title like The Knowledge Book: Everything You Need to Know to Get By in the 21st Century (Oct.), a heavily illustrated 512-page tome, Mulroy explains, the pressure is on to keep the price down. National Geographic achieves this by producing co-editions with foreign publishers wherever possible.

The Knowledge Book bears a $35 price tag. “Nonillustrated nonfiction and even novels push the $30 price, but in the reference category in particular, people expect value because it's a competitive subject area,” says Mulroy.

“Price is the main issue,” Bill Wolfsthal, associate publisher of Skyhorse Publishing, says about The CIA World Factbook 2008, an October paperback that checks in at a whopping 832 pages and a relatively tiny price of $12.95. “That price is low, but there's still a margin for us,” says Wolfsthal. “We want to compete with all the other almanacs and reference books out there.” The volume lists items such as telephone systems, geographical features and major economic sectors for nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The first printing will be 20,000 copies, and the press hopes to revise the book, which presents material obtained directly from the CIA, annually.
What Price Words?
Words and books about words make reference run. Indeed, without dictionaries and the like there would be no reference category. But these days numbers are just as prominent as letters, meaning everyone is keeping an eye on price.

“We've noticed increased price sensitivity when it comes to this category,” says Steve Deger, acquisitions and marketing manager for Fairview Press. “Gas prices, the recent burst of the 'credit bubble,' stock market volatility, the uncertainty of war and a continued sluggish housing market have consumers pinching pennies in all areas—including high-end reference tomes.”

In response to that resistance and to feedback from reps, the press published the second edition of The Book of Positive Quotations as a paperback last September rather than in hardcover as originally planned. The results? Deger reports that according to Nielsen BookScan, at $21.95 the book is outselling the bigger names, such as Bartlett's Familiar Quotations and The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, both of which ring in at $50.

In what Quirk Books calls its “irreference” category, i.e., books that mix reference with irreverence, is the October hardcover Butt Rot and Bottom Gas: A Glossary of Tragically Misunderstood Words by Eric Groves Sr.

At $10.95 and a diminutive 5”×7”, it bridges the gap between gift books and reference. Publisher David Borgenicht says, “For us, reference is not just dictionaries, thesauruses and encyclopedias—it's really a lifestyle category.” According to the book, by the way, butt rot is a fungus that afflicts trees, and bottom gas is used by underwater divers so that they can breathe down in the deep.

W.R. Runyan's Whiffletrees and Goobers: 1,001 Fun and Fabulous Forgotten Words and Phrases (Skyhorse, Aug.) plays similar games with once common words that have fallen out of favor. The book was originally privately published but it's been repackaged in a $12.95 paperback and is meant to appeal to those nostalgic for the days of pig nuts (that's a kind of hickory nut) and the tongued scraper (used to scoop up dirt).

Another republished linguistic title is Crisp Toasts: Wonderful Words That Add Wit and Class to Every Time You Raise Your Glass by William R. Evans III and Andrew Frothingham (St. Martin's/Dunne). First published in 1992, it has never gone out of print, reports editor Peter Joseph. Its toasts cover everything from christenings (“May this be the last bath at which your baby cries”) to coffee (“To a hot, steaming cup of Joe / Tomorrow when I wake up slow”).

Those who don't think butt rot is appropriate for polite conversation will reach for How Not to Say What You Mean: A Dictionary of Euphemisms by R.W. Holder (Oxford Univ. Press, Sept.), the fourth edition of this title. OUP's Ben Harris says, “This is the standard reference on euphemisms. It's not only for those intrigued by our tendency for mincing and understatement, but for all students of English language and culture.”

Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge: The Book of Mnemonic Devices—How to Remember All the Stuff You Ever Wanted to Know by Rod L. Evans (Perigee, Aug.) is yet another cunning paperback at a low price ($10.95). It's packed with rhymes, acronyms and other nifty methods for recalling trivia, such as LOAN for the states surrounding Texas (Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico). “I can now easily list the five tenets of Calvinism through the word TULIP, in case that ever comes up,” crows editor Meg Leder.