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General shrinkage in the reference publishing world, when every day seems to bring news of another consolidation and when several prestigious reference brands have all but disappeared, makes launching a new reference imprint especially risky. But that’s what Neil Schlager, founder and publisher of Schlager Group, has done.
Though the imprint is new, Schlager has been making his mark on reference publishing for some time. After a stint of nearly 10 years at Gale, where he served as managing editor of the multicultural team and senior editor of new product development, in 1997 he founded Schlager Group, an editorial services company that was behind such titles as Gale’s Science and Its Times (2000), Facts On File’s Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Ancient World (2006) and Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World (2008), and Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives (2000–2007). In 2007 Schlager Group struck out on its own as a publisher. “We had become as adept at creating top-notch reference content as anyone out there, and it made sense for us to begin publishing our own titles,” Schlager says. The company’s focus on history matches his own educational background and interests. The first title published under the Schlager Group imprint, Milestone Documents in American History: Exploring the Primary Sources That Shaped America, appeared in 2008 and was a Booklist Editor’s Choice as well as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title. A companion volume, Milestone Documents of American Leaders: Exploring the Primary Sources of Notable Americans, was published this past year. Milestone Documents in World History will hit library shelves early in 2010, to be followed by Milestone Documents in African American History and Milestone Documents of World Religions later in the year. Schlager explains the concentration on primary sources as filling a reference gap. Learning is becoming more document-based, but “although there are countless collections of primary documents with limited context and commentary, what many students and researchers are looking for is analysis and help interpreting documents they’re studying.” It is Schlager’s mission to provide that analysis and help.
The “when-and-how-you-want-it” model of delivering content has become the new paradigm in reference publishing, and today’s publisher has to be more than a maker of books. In addition to print, the Milestone Documents sets are available online via the Salem e-history platform. About a year ago, Schlager Group launched MilestoneDocuments.com to test a direct-to-consumer, pay-per-article model. “We were surprised at the number of downloads,” Schlager says, and the site is now being overhauled “to make it a general destination about primary documents that librarians will feel comfortable recommending to students and teachers.” The premium, pay-per-article content is being rebranded as DocNotes for the consumer market, and a teacher portal will provide classroom resources. There will also be a “vast amount” of free content, including live updates offering coverage of presidential speeches, Supreme Court decisions, and more, as well as blog posts by contributors to the Milestone Documents series. Mobile formats are also part of the mix, with several iPhone apps on the verge of being released. Schlager says that in the future he hopes to integrate mobile platforms with MilestoneDocuments.com so that users can buy full premium content over the phone.
Besides offering content in as many ways as possible, what else does a small, new, independent reference publisher do to make itself known? Innovative outreach is key. In addition to a monthly electronic newsletter for U.S. history educators, Schlager has begun to use Twitter (@neilschlager) to reach teachers and librarians. There is a Milestone Documents fan page on Facebook, and tools like Ning, Dingo, and Del.icio.us provide more ways to connect. As Schlager puts it, “Technology helps level the playing field and allows us to compete with the giants of the industry.” Schlager Group’s partnership with Salem also helps. The fact that the Milestone Documents series is available though Salem History eliminates the need to expend resources developing a digital platform, and Salem handles distribution for the books as well.
Another way to thrive is to redefine what it means to be a reference publisher. “Increasingly, I view us as being not in the reference publishing (or even publishing) business but in the history education business,” Schlager says. “We want to provide libraries, students, and educators with terrific, compelling information about historical documents wherever they are, in whatever form they may want it.” Although he says that Schlager Group “will continue to invest heavily” in its reference sets, there are also plans to focus on classroom materials for teachers. At the same time, libraries will remain the foundation of the business, and Schlager believes publishers need to take a more active role in building awareness of library collections and making sure content gets used. “Libraries and the reference content they offer form a crucial linchpin in the educational system,” he notes. “And we should trumpet that connection.”
You can follow Neil Schlager, and news about reference publishing, on SchlagerBlog.
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