ref•er•ence pub•lish•ing n :industry segment faced with dramatic change
It used to be that an encyclopedia salesman knocked on your door in hopes of selling you the latest 12-volume series of books brimming with factual information about everything from binary cell division to Benjamin Franklin. And your only option for finding the definition of onomatopoeia used to be to lug the dictionary off the shelf and thumb through its pages. Those days are, to some extent, history. As a result, reference publishers face significant challenges—reflected in a significant drop in new titles released in 2005—as they strive to adapt to new trends in the market.
Paul Kobasa, editor in chief for World Book, Inc., Chicago, says that the market today expects instantaneous access to information, so from a publishing perspective, reference publishers need to ensure this does not compromise standards for comprehensibility, authority and reliability.
For Encyclopaedia Britannica, also in Chicago, a huge hurdle has been making the transition from print to digital publishing. “This took some doing,” says Tom Panelas, director of corporate communications. Today, however, the company is “now primarily a digital publisher with printed products as well,” he says.
Panelas reports that Britannica (www.Britannica.com) has been engaged in digital publishing since before it reached other segments of publishing. “In fact, Britannica had a big part in bringing [digital publishing] about. We published our first digital version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1981 for Lexis/Nexis users, created the first multi-media encyclopedia in the late 1980s, and published the first encyclopedia on the Internet in 1994.”
Panelas concedes that the early years in the 1990s were a challenge because Britannica underwent a transition in which sales to consumers of its traditional print encyclopedia were declining; revenues from electronic products were increasing simultaneously, but not always as fast, he says.
“During the years when few people had Internet access and the main electronic publishing platform was CD-ROM, it was tough because CDs are sold in retail channels, where margins are low and publishers have limited control,” he explains. “As everyone joined universities in getting Internet access—consumers, schools, libraries—we’ve been able to develop a constellation of very successful online businesses built around Web sites designed to serve each market. Since we usually market directly to our customers, we aren’t beset by the vagaries of the retail channel, though we still sell software products there, as well as publishing books for the trade.”
World Book has experienced similar challenges, but like Britannica, found the Internet to be an opportunity to reach even more customers at home, in schools and in libraries, through its Online Reference Center—an online subscription-based edition of its encyclopedia (WorldBookOnline.com).
“Because it is online, there are few physical limitations on the quantity of material we can issue,” he adds. “For example, our online version includes more than 26,000 articles and counting, while our print edition contains more than 17,000 articles. Also, while we make significant enhancements and updates to our print edition on an annual basis, we can make continuous updates to the online product.”
According to Kobasa, its online bookstore (Store.WorldBook.com/wb/) has proven to be a strong and reliable channel for consumer sales. Also, he says, through certain non-subscription content, like “hands-on help” and monthly features, World Book is able to reach out to students, parents, librarians and teachers with value-added resources.
Ad Sales Boost Revenue
Merriam-Webster also was ahead of the curve in digital publishing, launching its Web site (www.Merriam-Webster.com) in 1996. It also quickly widened some eyes in the industry when it veered from the traditional book-publishing business model by selling advertising on the site. “We have been selling advertising since 1997, almost as long as we have had the site,” says John Morse, Merriam-Webster’s president and publisher.
“Right now, we are only selling advertising on our Web sites. The only other real opportunity for us is on our ‘Word of the Day,’” he says, referring to the company’s daily e-mail that is sent out for free to subscribers. “So far, that has only been used for our own products and services, but that may change going forward.”
While Morse couldn’t comment on the percentage of the company’s revenue that is generated from advertising, he says, “I can tell you that it has increased significantly over the past 12 months. The important thing for publishers to keep in mind, especially reference book publishers, is that this revenue is much more profitable than print-product revenue, because the cost of goods is so much less. … So, as long as you can keep your development costs under control, there is good money to be made here.”
Wikipedia and Other Online
Another ongoing challenge is consumers’ expectations for instantaneous access and the multitude of sources for information available online. “News outlets, search engines and encyclopedias all serve relevant roles in information gathering, but we have to help educate individuals on the differences,” he says.
Kobasa says, “We need to help [consumers] realize the distinction between raw information and information that is specifically designed to be understandable to an audience,” says Kobasa. “For us, making information understandable includes choosing vocabulary and sentence length geared to the comprehension skills of our student readers and integrating media (in print and online) that’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but content-bearing also.”
Reference publishers also have had to contend with the emergence of informational sites, such as Wikipedia, a free online “encyclopedia” that “anyone can edit,” as it says on its home page. The entries are written by any number of people who submit content. The site encourages contributors to cite sources, but this practice isn’t strictly adhered to. The site is approaching 1.1 million articles, and publishes in multiple languages worldwide. While these types of sites offer an interesting community-based Internet experience, says Kobasa, World Book competes in a different space that is focused on providing reliable, expert-authored and reviewed articles for particular audiences looking for usable answers to pressing questions.
He adds that World Book’s value is in providing information that is applicable to solving a problem—whether completing a homework assignment or familiarizing oneself with a new topic.
Panelas believes Wikipedia is getting so much attention because it is novel and free, and that it and other things like it will become permanent parts of the information environment, just as the Internet itself has.
“But eventually the buzz about Wikipedia will subside, people will come to understand the shortcomings and limitations of a reference work that anyone can write and change, and it will take its place among all the other sources of information,” says Panelas. “There’s room for many of them, and most have something to contribute to people’s need for knowledge and information.”
Pointing out a discrepancy, Panelas says Encyclopaedia Britannica wants people to understand each source and what it does. “People frequently compare Wikipedia to Britannica, but a work like Britannica, which is written by experts and scholars, and rigorously edited and fact-checked, has little in common with Wikipedia. This is somewhat contentious, but should become clearer in time.”
Merriam-Webster saw the potential in Wikipedia’s interactive model and launched its own user-contributed “Open Dictionary,” where visitors can submit entries that aren’t already in the company’s online dictionary, such as “frindle” (said to be another word for a pen) and “manky” (said to mean bad, inferior).
Big Info, Small Spaces
Panelas says that very clear right now is the desire for people to have information at their fingertips—a trend that reference publishers are working to embrace.
To do so, Britannica is more frequently publishing information in various ways—via cell phones, wireless devices, handheld devices, etc. “We’ll be on your iPod soon,” he says. “You can now settle arguments in a restaurant or get answers when you’re in a cab. Some people still think of the Britannica as this big set of books, but we are fitting into smaller and smaller spaces, and reaching people wherever they need us.”
World Book and Merriam-Webster are on the same page—or screen, rather.
“One major trend that we continue to watch is which end-user technologies will offer viable opportunities for us to present our product on, because we need to make our content accessible over whatever device our audience most naturally uses, whether it’s iPods or communication devices that also are capable of information delivery,” says Kobasa.
World Book also is aware of a backlash to data overload. Kobasa says there was a time when “look it up” meant referencing an encyclopedia or dictionary. That is now being subsumed by “go search for it,” by typing a query into a search engine.
“But there is a growing frustration with search engines because they are not being used correctly,” says Kobasa. “If you have a broad question or are doing research that requires amassing a great deal of data, a search engine can be an appropriate tool. But if you are looking for a comprehensible, authoritative, discrete answer to a question, an encyclopedia or a dictionary is the right tool to use.”
Segment Shows Significant Decline
In truth, search engines and other online resources have hurt the reference book industry. “The reference category has been extremely challenging over the last few years, as consumers are increasingly turning to the Internet
for their research needs,” says
Michael Norris, senior analyst for Simba Information, a market intelligence and forecasting company owned by R.R. Bowker.
In 2005, the number of reference book titles published dropped 35.5 percent from 2004, according to R.R. Bowker’s “Books in Print Database.” The database includes all trade books, including e-books, which are a very small portion of the overall titles, says Norris. “Of the 19 categories we cover, reference books took the second-steepest drop next to one other very narrow category—politics and current events,” says Norris. “If I had to say which category was most adversely affected by the Internet, it would be reference book publishing.”
Those who are continuing to prosper, he says, are “only those who have a strong reference publishing brand.”
The Future of Facts
So, as the image of the old encyclopedia salesman fades and an iPod jam-packed with wondrous facts comes into focus, one may wonder what successful reference publishing looks like in the future.
Panelas believes it will encompass those who publish high-quality content, who understand what customers want and who have the flexibility to change as needed.
Kobasa adds, “To be a successful reference publisher one has to deliver both what the user is looking to find and what the user does not know to look for. … For example, we need to make sure our information on a topic such as global warming is accurate, comprehensive and balanced for our users. But at the same time, we have to realize that while we have users looking for something they’re describing as global warming, they need to know about related topics like climate or atmospheric gases, too,” he says. “So we need to make sure we have equally extensive and reliable information in those areas and that we make it easier for the user to find this information and understand why it’s pertinent to the question he or she started out with.”
With that said, will reference publishing revenues continue to thrive in today’s environment? While neither Panelas nor Kobasa would disclose specific sales figures, Panelas says, “The sales of printed encyclopedias—which we still publish, by the way—have declined in the past 15 years, while online revenues have grown rapidly and continue to grow.”
Morse comments, “There is, of course, a whole new business to learn, and it is becoming an increasingly complex business, so there is a lot of new expertise you have to acquire, but that’s just the price of doing business these days.”
Sharon R. Cole is Philadelphia-based freelance writer serving the print industry.