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.”