The online revolution hit no publishers more directly than those that specialize in reference material. With so much information readily available electronically (some accurate, some… not), several years of handwringing followed. The 2010 announcement that the Oxford English Dictionary would no longer be produce its signature print edition led to cries of woe, and when Encyclopaedia Britannica made a similar announcement last year (after 244 years of print editions) it generated dramatic headlines.

But recent conversations with reference publishers turn up a generally rosier picture, despite a continuing drop in print sales. Because these publishers had to move into the digital space early on, many of them are now able to focus on how the digitization of reference content can enhance its value.

“In my view, if traditional reference publishers are going to stay relevant, they have to think about digital,” says Damon Zucca, reference and online publisher for the venerable Oxford University Press. Zucca also believes that good reference publishing is more necessary than ever. “There’s a need for trustworthy materials to cut through the amount of available material,” he says.

A Virtual Ocean of Knowledge

Publishers in reference continue to juggle a variety of formats, and are finding that the success of any offering depends on the target audience for that project and how they want to receive and use the information.

For example, at OUP, Zucca and his team are seeking to create a “new generation of reference materials.” The OUP backlist is now largely available in e-book, and offerings such as the Oxford Islamic Studies Online take advantage of the ability to link up content easily in digital form. The publisher has also been busy launching its first digital-only offerings, such as Oxford Bibliographies, designed to send researchers to the best sources of information on a variety of topics. It also recently changed how it rolls out updates to traditional print materials such as Oxford Handbooks, so new chapters and information go up at their online home first.

But for some materials, Oxford finds print is still what the audience prefers. For example, 2011’s Oxford Companion to Beer by Garrett Oliver has done well in hardcover, selling in excess of 30,000 copies (with a $65 cover price), according to Nielsen BookScan. Zucca calls Oxford’s strategy “format agnostic,” with the best way to get information to its audiences determined on a title-by-title and project-by-project basis. One of the benefits of OUP’s digital products has been the ability to see in real time what people are using and how, which in turn may generate new ideas for the publisher.

Meanwhile, just the name DK conjures up visions of lavishly illustrated print books. And, indeed, the British publisher continues to see success with titles like last fall’s 480-page Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style, produced in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. But Fashion was also Apple’s iBooks Author Book of the Year, praised for its lush interactivity, and DK published a whopping 2,600 digital products in 2012.

“Our Smithsonian titles continue to sell well across multiple sales channels, and this fall we have a significant list with them,” says DK editorial director Nancy Ellwood. Due this fall are four new Smithsonian titles in adult reference—Great Design, Music, Timelines of Science, and Earth—along with three children’s titles: History Year by Year, The Animal Book, and The Knowledge Encyclopedia. Also in the fall, DK will launch a new series of narrative nonfiction. Conquest of the Ocean (Sept.) will explore 5,000 years of maritime history alongside stories of great seafarers, and Kill or Cure (Nov.) will chronicle the “sordid history of medicine, from leeches to laser treatments.”

Penguin’s Perigee has only one traditional reference title, The Complete Guide to Prescription and Nonprescription Drugs, which it puts out in an annual edition each November. “Numbers on this title have dropped dramatically since its heyday in the ’90s,” says John Duff, publisher of “popular reference” imprints Perigee and Prentice Hall Press, “when we were selling upwards of 100,000 copies of each edition to libraries, certainly, but most to general consumers through traditional retail outlets, big-box stores, and catalogues.” However, there’s enough demand to continue to “keep this book going in print and e-book editions.”

Still, the rest of the imprints’ offerings aim for a more popular and/or humorous approach. Forthcoming titles along these lines include The Totally Sweet ’90s: From Clear Cola to Furby, and Grunge to “Whatever,” the Toys, Tastes, and Trends That Defined a Decade by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Belmont (June); Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages by Nathan Belofsky (July); and The Extraordinary Book of Useless Information: The Most Fascinating Facts That Don’t Really Matter by Don Voorhees (Sept.).

Skyhorse, too, has new titles on the way that fall into the popular reference category. The Doomsday Prepping Crash Course by Patty Hahne (May) joins related books on its list that have performed well. “It’s probably a little callous to say it, but scared people buy lots of books,” says associate publisher Bill Wolfsthal.

Skyhorse’s other upcoming popular reference books focus on language—Common Phrases: And the Amazing Stories Behind Them by Max Cryer (June); God Bless America: The Origin of Over 1,500 Patriotic Words and Phrases by Robert Hendrickson (July); and The Quotable Book Lover, edited by Ben Jacobs, Helena Hjalmarsson, and Nicholas Basbanes (July). Wolfsthal maintains that while some publishers have stopped doing these sorts of titles, book buyers still love works about words and writing.

As for publishers targeting a general audience with a specific reference strategy, Sourcebooks’s list is pitched to parents and students entering college. Four titles due next month are New York Times bestseller Harlan Cohen’s The Naked Roommate, 5th Edition; a second edition of Christie Garten’s U Chic: The College Girls’ Guide to Everything (which now has graduated to a Web site,; Harvard Business School grad Diane Melville’s The Community College Advantage; and Stefanie Weisman’s The Secrets of Top Students. In July, the publisher will release Fiske Guide to Colleges 2014, marking the guide’s 30th anniversary, now also available as an iPad and online app.

In the Library

Nearly all the core reference publishers continue to work with libraries as major customers. In many ways, the migration of the library audience to digital information sources and libraries striving to meet that demand has driven innovation and the types of materials these publishers make available in this area.

Gale, part of Cengage Learning, is a heavyweight in reference products for the library market. Frank Menchaca, executive v-p of research solutions, who oversees reference products for Gale, says that while the company’s roots may be in print, its business is currently 70% digital. He’s quick to add, however, that 30% is still significant, and the company continues to produce print as needed. “The shift of reference from traditional print into much more dynamic content is only going to increase,” says Menchaca. “Our customers are less concerned with labels. They want the right information for the right purpose at the right time.”

Gale brings a wide mix of products to the table, including a slew of individual titles and subscription databases. Ten years ago, it developed its own proprietary e-book platform, which had a major relaunch last year to make it more user-friendly and compatible with e-readers. That platform, the Gale Virtual Reference Library, provides something attractive to many libraries with limited budgets—unlimited-access pricing. Institutions that purchase a book or other content get unlimited uses, in essence purchasing a site license.

“They [libraries] want well-written, current, accurate information, and they often want to know how it relates to curriculum, such as Common Core and academic resources,” says Menchaca, noting that many librarians need such information to justify a purchase these days. “We’re devoting a lot of time to making those linkages clear.”

Gale recently announced a major new initiative: a licensing agreement with the Smithsonian Institution to offer the complete archives of Smithsonian Magazine and Air and Space magazine, in addition to collections that cover American history, science, world cultures, and more. Gale will develop Smithsonian-branded products for the library and academic markets from these sources. Early last year, the publisher also launched a promising new series, Literature and Society, which links literary works to historical context. In June the series will add The Literature of Autobiographical Narrative and The Literature of Propaganda.

With so many libraries relying on digital materials as a major part of their reference collections, competition for their business is stiff. One of the fastest growing aggregators of reference content is Credo, which began as a dot-com startup about 15 years ago and narrowed its focus after the bubble burst. Some 100 reference publishers participate in the Credo platform, and all the content in its database is interlinked. Libraries can choose from a range of access, from all available materials to bundles of licenses for certain titles or negotiating agreements with publishers for specific resources to be made available through Credo.

“We have always been fundamentally publisher neutral,” says Credo CEO Mike Sweet. “Our mission is in fighting for the role of reference, and in adding value to publishers’ content.” In 2012, Credo began rolling out a reference service called Literati. The new platform is designed to help libraries market the materials they have available by guiding users to them; it also is meant to help build information-literacy skills. As part of the development, Credo added on-staff librarians who can serve as “an extra set of hands” for subscribing libraries.

Angela Carreño, head of collection development for the Elmer H. Bobst Library at New York University, has found Credo to be a critical component of the library’s five-year-old e-preferred strategy for reference content. “The biggest puzzle was how to increase discovery and access to reference content,” says Carreño. “Students are so steeped in Internet search, their first instinct tells them to use Google or Wikipedia. We must give them an environment that’s easy and comfortable.” While there was at first a learning curve among users, Carreño and her colleagues say that now users recognize the benefit of a largely digital collection. They can access materials from anywhere and search more easily for the specific information they need.

The Last Lexicographers

At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher Bruce Nichols agrees that the digital future for reference is bright. “Unlike with commercial fiction, it’s not going to e-book so much as other forms,” Nichols says. “Our print sales are still strong enough to merit new titles, but are declining. Electronic licensing is doing really well.”

In fact, Nichols says the variety of places and ways to license reference content in the online world has created many opportunities for the publisher. From dictionary apps to dictionary components for computer terminals to allowing users to look up words in games or computer programs, the number of possible uses for its content keeps growing. The publisher’s longtime reference flagship line, American Heritage, provides a range of editions of its premier product, from the deluxe print copy of its American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition, to paperback and student varieties, and a dedicated online home at

HMH also purchased Webster’s New World reference titles and CliffsNotes from Wiley late last year. A major new edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary will be released next year, and the publisher is currently exploring options to expand upon the popularity of the CliffsNotes Web site, which brings in significant advertising revenue. Nichols is concerned, however, about the potential impact of one long-term trend in the field. The drop in profitability of print editions of dictionaries in particular has resulted in fewer on-staff positions for lexicographers throughout the reference world. What that could mean for the quality of dictionaries in the future is an open question.

Author and lexicographer Orin Hargraves, current president of the Dictionary Society of North America, agrees that it’s a concern, though the effects of the decline aren’t being felt just yet. “Many things are still drawing on legacy resources,” he says. “When the time comes that they are truly crowdsourced, quality will decline. Very few people instinctively know how to write a good definition.” But with the average age of English-language lexicographers “well over 40,” fewer openings to train new lexicographers for, and perhaps 100 remaining in the world (which Hargraves believes is actually enough), it could well become a problem to find qualified, dedicated professionals to provide the dictionary content of tomorrow and ensure changes to the English language are accurately captured and quantified.

“It’s a dilemma,” says Hargraves. “Lexicography is a useful skill when you’re putting together dictionaries. But what about if a day comes when no one is?”

Playing Favorites

Researchers and students are far from the only users of reference materials. We polled several authors about whether they have a favorite reference work or if a particular tome was invaluable for a certain project. Read on to discover a wide range of unusual texts—and find out which resource is so essential it turns up twice.

Susan Bordo (The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen): For the Anne Boleyn book, my favorite resources were the collected letters and papers of Henry VIII and his court, especially Henry’s love letters to Anne Boleyn and the virulently anti-Anne missives of Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys. They were indispensable not for factual material but for the opposite reason: because they reveal the passions, hatreds, cultural habits, and intrigues that became the basis for much of what we have taken to be “history.” I never read a secondary source without going back and forth to the original documents, and was frequently shocked at how often “fact” turned out to be grounded in rumor, the unsubstantiated reports of Anne’s enemies, and—in the case of Henry’s letters—lack of attention to the not-always “sincere” conventions of courtly love. It was mind-boggling to see how many elaborate Tudor narratives, historical as well as fictional, have been built on top of such a wobbly foundation!

Cassandra Clare (Clockwork Princess): Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable! It usefully explains hundreds of idioms and expressions, and well as covering mythology and folklore. Basically it has everything. I use it all the time.

Karen Joy Fowler (We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves): Between 1961 and 1967, I had a subscription to American Heritage magazine. I was, of course, a slip of a girl back then. The magazine came in hardcover and its essays were long, at least compared to what I was used to. And often lurid! I loved it. I just pulled August of ’61 off my shelf and there are articles about the volcanic destruction of St. Pierre (1902), about Nancy Randolph’s trial for the murder of her own child (1792), about a Confederate Army’s incompetent bank robbery (1864), and about the San Simeon shenanigans of William Hearst. And much more. I still use these old issues all the time for story ideas and period details. I had the impression the magazine went under years and years ago, but a quick Google suggests this is not the case; I am about to re-up.

Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane): The favorite of all favorites is an ancient Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable—it’s an early edition filled with strange references to things I’ve never encountered anywhere else. Need a list of people who fell asleep magically and will one day awake? It’s there...

Sara Gran (Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway): My favorite reference book is The Golden Guide to Hallucinogenic Plants by the great ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. First of all, because the mere fact that this book exists is almost too wonderful to be true. Alongside Golden Guide classics like Pond Life and Seashore Guide, some clever editor saw a need for a guide to psychoactive plants. I’ve used this extensively in research for my Claire DeWitt mystery series and for an ongoing project I’ve been writing for a few years about psychoactive plants (my boyfriend has a rare illness that is treated by the plants in Golden Guide). Sadly, although botany doesn’t change much, our understanding of it does, and the information in this pocket guide is sometimes outdated. But who cares? Like all Golden Guides, the writing is lively and fun and the illustrations are beautiful. Wherever I move, I keep this book displayed prominently; its existence reminds me that books, and life, can be strange and unexpected and wonderful and, sometimes, give us exactly what we need.

John Scalzi (Redshirts): An easy answer—The People’s Almanac, which I ate whole at the age of seven. I spent the next several years spouting all sorts of random information from it at people who had no idea how a small child would know such odd things.

Andrew Shaffer (Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors): I don’t rely on any single source when doing research for my books or magazine articles—instead, I look at tools that allow me access to the data I need. I pay a monthly subscription fee to access 75,000 books and over nine million journal articles at I also utilize Google e-books (not their e-bookstore, Google Play, but their scanned library) for public domain books. The closer I can get to a primary textual source, the better. is also invaluable for public domain books. Those three Web sites have pretty much eliminated the need for me to visit an academic library. The single most-accessed books in my collection are the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus and New Oxford American Dictionary, both via Apple’s built-in dictionary application.

The site I avoid at all cost is Wikipedia, which for many subjects I’ve found to be a trove of misinformation. I don’t even have any desire to read my own Wikipedia article.