Can Infobase Successfully Usher the World Almanac Into the Digital Age? President Mark McDonnell discusses purchasing the iconic brand at a challenging time for reference publishers.
It's well-known that reference books generally have been suffering lately, another facet of the industry that has been affected by the Internet and consumers' easy access to free information. "For 2009, revenue-wise, … we estimated reference book sales would fall much [more] than that of the other categories we expected to do poorly this year …," says Michael Norris, senior analyst at Simba Information, a market research and consulting firm in Stamford, Conn. "The simple reason is that consumers have a different relationship with reference-book content than they do with, say, a great work of fiction or an engaging biography. They mostly just need a snippet of information here and there, and being that the Web houses a lot of what a consumer thinks he or she needs, few are bothering to buy traditional reference books."
Despite this outlook, last month New York-based educational media company Infobase Publishing purchased the World Almanac imprint from Pleasantville, N.Y.-based Reader's Digest Association. Infobase President Mark McDonnell is confident and optimistic about his company's latest acquisition, noting that he not only expects to continue publishing the chunky reference books, but expanding the World Almanac offerings both digitally and in print. He recently elaborated on his plans for the brand to Book Business Extra:
Book Business Extra: Why did Infobase Publishing purchase the World Almanac imprint now, in light of both the current economic environment and the fact that reference-book sales in general are suffering?
Mark McDonnell: ... We already owned the content of "The World Almanac" from a prior deal, but we did not own the brand World Almanac. And so this was an opportunity for us to acquire the brand and the right to publish "The World Almanac" and "Book of Facts" and "The World Almanac for Kids." So, even though there's obviously competition from the Internet, … those books are very strong sellers in the trade market, and so it made sense for us to acquire those properties. We also have plans to convert them to online pay sites. ... We … will launch two … online subscription databases—one for the older, high school, college, adult market, and one for the young-adult market.
... [Purchasing the brand] made a lot of sense for us, because, obviously, World Almanac is a great name in reference publishing, and we're also a great name in reference publishing. … It's a better home for the World Almanac than where it was before. ... It had been on the market, so we knew about it. ... We were always wondering what they were going to do with it … . When it came available, we stepped up to the plate and did the purchase.
Extra: How does Infobase Publishing plan to compete with Google and the Internet in general?
McDonnell: … I sit and help my 14-year-old with his homework and, … if you've ever sat next to a 14-year-old trying to Google information, you waste a lot of time. … Our databases … not only are very focused and … curriculum-driven, but they're also credible and … reliable sources. In many cases, schools ... will not allow kids to cite Wikipedia, for example, when they're doing any kind of research papers. So we provide these databases of our content that's been vetted, it's reliable, we've been publishing since 1940, and all the schools and libraries in the country know us and the quality of our content. I don't worry too much about the Internet and competing with the Internet. [The Internet is] sort of like the Wild West. Anything can go up on the Internet, and you never know [whether or not it's reliable].
Extra: When will World Almanac's digital products debut?
McDonnell: … ["The World Almanac" and "Book of Facts"] will be available as e-books before the end of the year. We'll be working on making them available as either standalone databases or in conjunction with other of our products, probably within the first six months of 2010.
Extra: What are your plans for the future of the World Almanac brand?
McDonnell: ... The World Almanac brand is one of the best-known brands in reference publishing. We'll try to take advantage of that, and we'll continue to publish ["The World Almanac" and "Book of Facts"]. We'll probably be adding more products under the brand, and they'll be both print and electronic. ... I think it'll be in the general-curriculum areas. "The World Almanac" and "Book of Facts" cover areas like literature and science and history, and I see a definite opportunity to use the name and to publish more products under the name.