Q&A: Roger Jänecke

Roger Janecke 2015415LJ recently spoke to Roger Jänecke of Visible Ink Press about trends in reference and how his company has responded to them over the years.

Lately we’ve been receiving fewer reference books at LJ, and they tend to be either list-type browsing material or high-end scholarly works. Your titles fall in the middle. Can you tell us about your niche and how you’re making it work?
Good question. Sometimes I wonder how we’re making it work! Still, when talking to the fans of our authors or of our book series, I am always struck by our readers’ passion for the topics covered by our references. Whether it’s a book in our “Handy Answer Book” series, which covers the sciences and history; our phenomena and paranormal titles; our African American references; or our other books, we choose topics that people are motivated to learn about or ones that make them want to dig deeper into the subject. Plus, when we settle on a topic, we try to make the books engaging. We’re information junkies, but we also like a good story. All of our titles are clearly references—they always have multilevel indexes and bibliographies, for example, but we try to present information so that it can be read cover to cover. Not all subjects lend themselves to a narrative approach, of course, but those that do tend to have greater appeal and it has become a factor in deciding whether to cover the topic.

Visible Ink Press started in 1989. Tell us about the changes to the reference market you’ve noticed since then.
Visible Ink started as a unit of Gale, and we spun off in 2000 just as the Internet was influencing the reference market. Today, it’s not enough to provide information that people want on a particular topic. Subjects need to elicit a passion or interest that can’t be satisfied with the Internet. A lifelong learner, say, will likely want to hold—and hold on to—a book even after they’ve finished reading it. Conspiracy theorists or believers in the paranormal looking to understand a complex world seek trusted sources—but not necessarily an advocate. Our multicultural references engender pride. They aren’t just history lessons. People feel a connection to the history. Regardless of the subject matter, the information becomes personal.
In our 26 years, the desire for information hasn’t gone away—it will never go away—but looking for the quality or depth of content found in books (or a visit to the local library) requires extra motivation. The Internet provides such quick and easy access to most information, but much of it is shallower than that found in a book—or library. Nor has it, necessarily, been vetted. In addition, websites can be ephemeral, with information changing or disappearing. So a solid reference work should have depth, bring expert understanding, be lasting, and hold readers’ interest. We covered a much more diverse array of topics in our early days. More pop culture and fun-fact collections have been largely replaced by the Internet, but the topics that have stuck around are also those in which people have a deeper, stronger interest. Information in which expertise is required. Information that they want to hold, keep, perhaps read cover to cover and return to again and again.

How can teachers and librarians convince students to use your books rather than—or at least in addition to—Internet sources?
Forgive the slightly strained analogy, but I see books and the Internet being similar to an open-stack and a closed-stack library. Sure, an expert can navigate and use both very effectively, but, for us mere mortals, there’s a distinct advantage to going into the stacks in search of one title, but coming away with that particular book plus several others that were shelved nearby. Yes, a student can search the Internet and get some great information, but often they don’t know what they are looking for. They’re learning, and they don’t yet know what questions to ask. A book, like a visit to an open stack library, exposes the student to an author (or a librarian’s knowledge) on the subject—and unlike the Internet, it’s not just one person’s knowledge. A lot goes into editing, proofing, vetting, and publishing a book, just like a librarian is backed by their institution, the whole U.S. library system, as well as their local community.

What do you see as the future of reference?
Users access knowledge in new ways, and reference books (and libraries) will no longer offer every type of information. People need a reason to come to the library or purchase a reference, and not every subject will motivate someone to travel beyond their keyboard. Learning about slices of history—whether Islam or military history or Civil War or black firsts or conspiracies or the unexplained—or how the world works—physics or chemistry or politics or the paranormal, even—will always have an appeal.

The bifurcation of information will continue. The vast amounts available on the Internet will be fine for the broader market. The select information and references that need expert explanation and/or deeper understanding and/or creates an emotional connection with the information seeker (most likely, all three) will continue to serve the student, scientist, professional, the local community and/or the many subgroups and niches wanting a more robust grasp of a specific subject.—Henrietta Verma

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Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.