Reference Works From Idea to Reality – ALA Session Summary

This post was reprinted in full from the Points of Reference blog at

Each year at the ALA Annual Conference, Booklist’s Reference Books Bulletin sponsors a program to discuss various topics related to reference and reference publishing.  This year RBB’s session focused on the process of creating a reference work, from idea to reality.  The speakers included Casper Grathwohl from Oxford University Press, Rolf Janke from SAGE Reference, and Frank Menchaca from Gale/Cengage.  The session was moderated by Sue Polanka, Chair of the RBB Editorial Board.  Each panelist provided a 15 minute presentation on a particular aspect of the publishing process and a general Q/A followed.  I’ll summarize the comments of each panelist below.Reference Works from Idea to Reality

I. Exploring a new topic and selecting a format – Casper Grathwohl, Oxford University Press

Casper discussed 5 important steps in selecting a new topic and format for a reference work, either print or electronic.

  1. Understand the market and gather intel.  There are so many studies available right now on student research habits and research needs that it’s difficult for publishers to keep up; OUP has a market research department to tackle these efforts and test ideas/assumptions.
  2. The idea.  It is a group effort to come up with idea for a new product.  It must fit into your strategy (global, academic, etc.).  Because there is so much market research, you can always find something to back up your idea, so you must be careful when selecting the idea.  It’s also important for publishers to respond to market conditions and talk to faculty/librarians about needs/gaps.  (Yes, publishers do ask librarians for input said our panelists.  SAGE sends out abstracts of potential titles to 250 librarians for feedback, sp)
  3. Understand the business plan of the organization and the profit/loss margins.  Yes, publishers will produce a reference work for a needed topic even if the P margin is low.
  4. Find the right people. Must find editors/contributors that have the right skill set and be able to test that skill set in some fashion.  It’s important to find out what motivates them and provide the best mix of incentives/disincentives to keep the editors on track.  Changes need to be made quickly and early in the process.
  5. Advocate like mad.  Advocate within the business and with users and librarians.  Early advocacy can make/break a project.

II.  The Publication Process – Rolf Janke, SAGE Reference

  • The concept of idea to reality is a challenging and time consuming one and involves much project management.
  • You need “the right stuff” with a good editor, realistic schedule, and a project management tool
  • Contributors/editors will be worldwide and the necessary tools to guarantee they are in the same place and on the same time schedule are necessary.  (Picture herding cats here, sp)
  • Must determine the build scope – size of publication, number of pages, volumes, entries; create headword list, assign entries to contributors.
  • Invite contributors – set guidelines and have proper paperwork signed (contracts determine #words, deadlines, statements on plagiarism, etc.)
  • SAGE Reference uses an internally created project management program with 24/7 access by editors, contributors, SAGE staff.  All digital signatures, drafts, editing, and final approvals are handled through this mechanism.
  • Receiving Content – 80% of the content usually arrives on time.  The remaining 20% is absent for a number of reasons like:  contributors just disappear, articles are never written, contributors are just going to miss the deadline by a mile, articles not acceptable for publication, etc.)
  • Deadlines missed – publishers need to decide if/what they can live without and if the material is not time sensitive, how much longer they can wait for the needed content.  They also need to compare the content they have against their business model ( P and L) to determine if they have what it takes to proceed with the publication.  If not, they need to know when to throw in the towel.
  • Accessibility – must write for the target audience and with SAGE this is freshman level writing.  Many entries are written at too high a level or contain too many in text citations.  Unfortunately, some entries come back written by grad students or are plagiarized.  All of these situations must be handled by the SAGE editors.
  • Quality Control – checking that references are in order and the right format, all entries run through (iThenticate) a plagiarism detection software, art must be in place with proper permission, word count met.  If all of these are in order, they can proceed to production.
  • Time frame – process takes about 3 – 5 years for a multi-volume reference work.  Factors that can change this are length, complex content, competition, or available resources.

III. Revising Content – Frank Menchaca, Gale/Cengage

  • The revision process for print is much different than electronic.
  • Print – take a long look at the backlist and find the money making titles, those with good content, and determine if they need revision.
  • Lots of inquisition takes place in determining what the title requires for a revision and to sustain value
  • Now with electronic resources, they must look at the content in new ways and determine if content should be revised in print or online.
  • An example is with the Grzimek’s title which was a multi-volume print edition.  Gale moved this online recently because the content needed more frequent and dynamic updating.
  • Having content online provides so much use information that can be analyzed by search – what is popular, what searches are failing, etc.  This information can be used to provide updates and new content.  Because of this, online products are changing much faster.
  • Online content also allows the publishers to look at the entire subject area rather than individual topics that will fit a 1, 2, or 3 volume print set.
  • Revisions are happening outside of the format.

The Q/A with the audience was rather extensive.  One topic in particular, discoverability, deserves noting.

  • Discovery is the number one challenge in publishing
  • “Google holds the key” and we need to open it
  • Ideas for opening include:  combining reference with journal content, sending content to aggregators, using mobile apps, finding our ground with the next generation of searchers

There was a very similar presentation during ALA sponsored by RUSA Codes.  Amazingly, there wasn’t that much overlap in content.  Summary comments from this session are available on a No Shelf Required post.