No new comprehensive, one-volume encyclopedia has been published for about six years, but editions of two such books are now on their way to the nation's bookstores and at least two others are waiting in the wings.
In August, Cambridge University Press in New York began shipping its new entry, the Cambridge Encyclopedia, a 1,500-page reference work that sells for $49.50. And Random House followed with the revised third edition of the Random House Encyclopedia, a 2,912-page volume priced at $129.95.
Meantime, Simon & Schuster is preparing the Prentice Hall American Encyclopedia for publication next fall, while Columbia University Press is in the midst of an extensive revision of the Columbia Encyclopedia, four editions of which have been published since 1935. (The second edition of the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia was published last year, but its 920 pages are less than a third the size of the comprehensive Columbia book.)
This sudden spate of encyclopedias would seem surprising, since the cost of starting or revising such books is several million dollars. "Reference book publishers can't even turn around for less than seven figures," said Joseph J. Esposito, the publisher of Random House's travel and reference department.
But, besides the prestige factor, there is the fight for market share in the growing international competition for English-language reference books.
Increasingly, those books are being published not just in traditional formats but in electronic versions as well. The Random House Encyclopedia, for example, will be available in an electronic edition from Microlytics, a division of Selectronics Inc., while the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia will have a version from the Microsoft Corp. on CD-ROM.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia, produced in Britain, is designed for "the entire English-speaking market," said Alan Winter, the director of the American branch of the Cambridge University Press.
Consequently, its sections on science and technology are especially strong, added Sandy Whiteley, the editor of the Reference Books Bulletin of the American Library Association.
The Prentice Hall American Encyclopedia is being adapted from the Hutchinson Encyclopedia, which is published in England. "But we're completely Americanizing it," said Anne Zeman, the publisher of Prentice Hall reference books.
Likewise, the Random House Encyclopedia was developed jointly by Random House and Mitchell Beazley, a British publisher.
Esposito said the costs were so high to develop and publish so huge a book -- the Random House Encyclopedia comprises 3 million words and nearly 12,000 color illustrations -- that international partners were necessary to share the burden.
"Between the two of us," he added, referring to Mitchell Beazley, "we have sold it around the world."
Despite the book's hefty price tag (as well as its overall heft, at 12 pounds, 5 ounces), Random House has printed 100,000 copies, including 20,000 for the Book-of-the-Month Club. But the optimism appears to be justified: the first edition, in 1977, was priced at $69.95 and sold almost 115,000 copies, while the 1983 edition, priced at $99.95, quickly sold all 55,000 copies. Cambridge printed 50,000 copies of its encyclopedia.
Both encyclopedias will be in stores well before Christmas, the heaviest book-buying season, and both are aimed at general bookstores, college bookstores and libraries.
"They're being published at the right time of year, and at a time when there seems to be a growing audience for encyclopedias with different formats and prices," said Kenneth F. Kister, the author of Kister's Concise Guide to Best Encyclopedias, and Best Encyclopedias: A Guide to General and Specialized Encyclopedias.
No matter who actually purchases an encyclopedia for home use, Esposito added, most are bought for 9th- and 10th-grade students in middle-class families.