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Since 1984, Booklist has produced an annual “Encyclopedia Update.” In fact, as far back as 1979, there was an entirely separate publication for encyclopedias, a Reference Books Bulletin booklet titled Purchasing an Encyclopedia: 12 Points to Consider. In those days, there were 10 different, continuously revised print encyclopedias. By 1996 (5 years before the formal launch of Wikipedia, mind you), the conversion from print sets to online encyclopedias had begun, and we added an “Electronic Encyclopedia Update” to our annual coverage. By 2006, 10 years later, only 3 general print encyclopedias were left standing. With Britannica announcing earlier this year that its iconic multivolume print sets are no longer in production, the field had been reduced to 1: World Book. Clearly, in 2012, there is little point in doing an annual update of general print encyclopedias.
That’s not to say, however, that there isn’t an almost constant need for updated information in the ever-changing world of reference publishing. So, this year, we decided our once-revered “Encyclopedia Update” needed rebooting with a kind of environmental scan of the reference world—and, in particular, encyclopedia publishing in its present form. To do our scanning, we asked some of the publishers who were once known for print encyclopedias to talk to us about the future of encyclopedias in particular and print reference in general.
Buoyant at Britannica
Britannica is not looking back from its monumental decision to cease publishing a print encyclopedia. It was not a hard decision to make, according to Michael Ross, senior vice president and general manager of education. In fact, the market did the deciding. Britannica now considers itself to be a technology company—30 in-house developers write code alongside 100 editors crafting content. When talking about the new digital offerings from Britannica, Ross says, “What the user has now is almost unlimited. A live, organic, interactive, and engaging environment, with frequent updates.”
Excitement is indeed running high at Britannica. President Jorge Cauz states that “in today’s want-it-now culture, there is a real value in being able to publish almost immediately—and we do, with 1,200 new or revised articles per month.” In addition, he notes that now Britannica knows more about who its users are—over the company’s nearly 250-year history, it sold approximately 7 million sets of print encyclopedias in the U.S. Now, Britannica has more than 100 million online users between the core websites and apps. Staff members know what pages and features are used most, and they are in contact with users—who can even suggest edits. Ross says, “Reference used to be something that a user referred to from time to time. Now, information is part of daily life. Every day people look things up, and thanks to mobile devices, they do it anywhere and everywhere.”
SAGE Reference: Right Content, Right Format, Right Price
Although digital is the future of reference, all is not lost for print, at least not in the area of specialized and topical encyclopedia sets. Rolf Janke, vice president and publisher of SAGE Reference, says his company is focusing on A–Z topical encyclopedias specifically in the social sciences but that SAGE is streamlining content to scale sets down, making them more economical to produce and more affordable for customers. Janke elaborates, “We are not just about A to Z, though; we are doing many other kinds of series—issue-based, pro-con—as well as larger digital products.” Print sales are declining but at a slower rate than expected, Janke notes, adding that the company’s robust digital strategy, including the SAGE Knowledge platform as well as partnerships with reference e-book aggregators such as Credo, is keeping the company busy. “It’s nice to see that librarians value our content enough to buy it in print and perhaps in e-book form as well. My take on the print-versus-digital question is that if you produce the right content in the right amount of space at the right price, you’ll maximize your chances for both print and digital sales.”
Gale: A New Approach to Reference
Frank Menchaca, Gale’s executive vice president for publishing, says, “I have been in publishing for about 25 years, and the pace of change over the last 10 has just been astonishing. Well-established practices have been completely renovated, thanks to electronic media.” In a post-Wikipedia world, Menchaca is driven to figure out what drives maximum value for users and to publish content that fills that need. “We have an ‘e-first’ perspective on creating content. An encyclopedia is an aggregation of resources. That is a function of the media—print—not a function of the content or information. Now that the media is changing, the content comes first,” he affirms. Among Gale’s newest offerings will be single-volume e-books meant to be consumed in short bits, parsing and guiding research around a particular topic.
“In the information age, knowledge is unfinishable and unfinished. Summarizing anything is increasingly problematic,” notes Menchaca, and that issue is driving a new sensibility behind Gale’s products. Last year’s topical work on Cuba is an example of its new approach to reference—100 writers, living in Cuba, combined with an editorial board from the U.S. and around the world to create a mosaic of the country, rather than an A–Z encyclopedia. The approach was not without a little controversy. “The Cuban writers brought a very different stance on what needed to be represented in the work, and they have a very different perspective. We purposely did not include a biographical entry on Castro—you can get that online. We wanted to build a book of living experiences.”
ABC-CLIO: Staying Relevant
ABC-CLIO publishes print reference books and e-books simultaneously. The company is staying relevant with a three-pronged approach: developing innovative formats that work for users and students, seeking compelling subjects with unique twists on the high-school and undergrad curriculum, and maintaining authority. Vince Burns, vice president of education, states that “although today’s reference book isn’t what it was 10 years ago, one thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the necessity for gold-plated scholarship and authority at the top of our reference lists. To accomplish this, ABC-CLIO enlists academic leaders in all our subject areas to author, edit, and advise us on our lists.”
ABC-CLIO has decided that an A–Z format is no longer the most useful way to present information; this year, less than a quarter of the company’s reference books are A–Z encyclopedias. A more holistic approach, including combining narrative with primary documents, is working well for the company. Burns also recognizes that the focus of the new Common Core State Standards on informational texts and primary sources makes this approach especially relevant for today’s school and public libraries. ABC-CLIO is also seeing an increase in interest in popular culture. Burns gives a personal example: “My son is 15. When he read our Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal Music (2009) cover-to-cover last summer, I knew, as a publisher, that we had a winner. As a parent, I was a little worried, but that’s another story!” It’s significant to note here that many of these titles, particularly in single-volume format, are finding a home in libraries’ circulating collections rather than in reference—a growing trend we’ve commented on this year at Booklist.
Salem Press: What Do Users Appreciate?
Long available in both print and digital, Salem Press’ content isn’t governed by its packaging any longer. The company is well known for providing purchasers of its print sources unlimited access to the same content online. Peter Tobey, director of sales and marketing, says that Salem will “continue to publish multivolume reference. But that same content is also available in smaller subsets. We are creating ‘clusters’ of content—titles that relate to one another in creative ways—linked by articles, lesson plans, topical overviews, and further reading. All to make reference a key participant in curriculum support and research.” In addition, Salem serves collection-development librarians’ need to maintain budgetary control by offering its products one at a time and permanently. Tobey believes that the company’s Salem Singles are a good solution to the dilemma of collecting large and more expensive sets. Critical Survey of Poetry (2011), for example, has been broken out this year into 24 single-volume paperbacks (containing selections from the larger set) which fit nicely into circulating collections.
Infobase Learning: Meeting Evolving Needs
Laurie Likoff, editorial director at Infobase Learning, tells us that Infobase (the parent company of Facts On File and World Almanac, among others) has refocused its publishing program to reflect users’ evolving needs and is going in the direction of digital. “Our forward plan for encyclopedias, as well as longer narrative reference materials, will be to publish them as e-books, a format that offers a wealth of features and benefits that the print editions simply can’t provide—although our print titles are still available through print on demand for customers who still prefer that format.” Infobase continues to develop eLearning Modules, which are unique combinations of print reference sets with multimedia and support materials. Recent Facts On File imprint offerings include smaller sets of print reference that can be purchased individually and fit well into circulating collections.
“Now that reference circulates and doesn’t simply sit on the reserve shelf, we see it as a category more broadly defined than the traditional formats of encyclopedias and dictionaries,” said Linda May, Vice President of Marketing for Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group (RLPG). “We define reference as any resource providing quick information and answers. This can range from one of our Military Life series books providing information helpful to families currently serving in the military and going about their lives to our new Listener’s Companion series in Music, our Food Culture titles in Anthropology, and our more traditional formats in Pop Culture like the Complete Costume Dictionary. Some of our reference product is even coming out in trade editions like The Disney Song Encyclopedia available this fall in bookstores as well as libraries.”
“Our content is primarily aimed at students at the community college, university, and high-school levels. We don’t often do multi-volume sets much anymore but tend to focus on single volume, single subject books. We also believe in providing both print and digital publishing and have been producing e-books for years. In fact, sales of our e-books have doubled on an annual basis.”
“RLPG obviously has a strong commitment to reference as we jumped in with both feet with ProQuest on reviving the Statistical Abstract of the United States 2013. We have a million-dollar stake in this book because we believed in it and responded to the concerns of librarians all over the country that this reference resource is one of the most important books in any print library.”
World Book: Refining and Redesigning Products
Last year’s “Encyclopedia Update” covered what were the 2 remaining print sets at that time. This year we began with Britannica, no longer in the print business, so it’s fitting to close with World Book, which still publishes an annual edition of World Book Encyclopedia and, for younger readers, periodically updated editions of World Book Discovery Encyclopedia. Paul Kobasa, vice president, editorial, says that as popular as digital sources of general-reference information may be among users, these sources may not always be accessible—too few computers in the public library or the school library media center, only modest amounts of available computer time at school, or one computer for the family at home. Consequently, the company has decided to keep its general encyclopedias up-to-date and available in print, thus offering options to librarians wishing to provide multiple points of access to such material.
Kobasa also takes note of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, calling the new environment created by the standards “a challenge to all educational publishers to refine and redesign our output in ways that can help educators and their students pursue and succeed at learning. The story aspect of our Building Blocks titles is one of several techniques World Book uses in its print publications to reflect the spectrum of learning styles, reading comprehension levels, and instructional approaches typical of any one classroom.” He also is well aware of the shift from reference to circulating collections. “World Book now publishes more material in unnumbered, topically organized series rather than in numbered, alphabetically organized sets. Because these series survey an entire topic, a librarian can choose to keep the books together as a reference set or could catalog them individually and distribute them into the circulating collection.”
What Does It All Mean?
Many publishers are tackling the issue of what to do in this new reference age. Surprisingly enough, some older classic reference works are making a comeback—the forty-fourth edition of The Lincoln Library of Essential Information (2012) saw its first update in 27 years this year, in both print and database form. And it’s important to note that there is a reference world outside of the U.S.—Berkshire specializes in global interest titles and has just announced that the company is expanding further into the international market by translating the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History (2010) into Chinese for print distribution in China. The publisher is also experimenting with “Berkshire Bytes“—making individual articles available as PDF downloads.
Wiley, one of the oldest U.S. publishing companies, publishes specialty encyclopedias such as The Encyclopedia of War (2012) under the Wiley-Blackwell imprint (having merged their academic line with Blackwell in 2007). The company is moving from being product-centric—delivering primarily print products—to a customer-centric company able to provide users with what they want, when they want it. With all the talk of going digital (Wiley calls it “All Wiley, All the Time, Anywhere”), a look at the Wiley catalog shows that the company still plans on at least five new specialty sets coming in early 2013. And Oxford University Press still prints single-volume specialty encyclopedias on a regular basis and major sets every few years (Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture this fall, for example).
Where do we go from here? Reference publishers are facing the end of encyclopedias as we know them with brave faces, even with a sense of excitement at the prospects ahead. The new approaches to encyclopedic reference vary, it’s true—Britannica isn’t looking back, while World Book and SAGE aren’t ready to cease print any time soon; meanwhile, several publishers still see real value in the smaller, single-volume works—but there appears to be room for all. Interestingly, many library users don’t see the world the same way librarians and publishers do; for students and public library patrons, books divide into fiction and nonfiction. They don’t make the distinction between reference and “regular” nonfiction—it’s all simply information. And some users prefer their information in print form, while others can’t fathom anything but digital.
There’s always constant chatter decreeing that encyclopedias are dead, but perhaps we should simply state that they have evolved, and if the excitement and innovations on offer from these publishers are any indication, that’s a good thing for librarians and for users.
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