World Book, Inc. History
Chicago, Illinois 60661
Telephone: (312) 258-3700
Fax: (312) 258-3950
Sales: $200 million
SICs: 2731 Book Publishing; 5963 Direct Selling Establishments
World Book, Inc. is a leading publisher of reference materials. Through three of its five divisions, the company markets hundreds of different reference and educational products in more than 50 countries and in more than a dozen languages. Its World Book is the largest selling print encyclopedia in the world by numerical volume. World Book is owned by Scott Fetzer Co., which is, in turn, held by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
World Book, Inc. is the progeny of entrepreneurs J.H. Hanson and John Bellows. In the early 1900s, through their publishing house, Hanson-Bellows Company, the two Chicago businessmen published The New Practical Reference Set, a general purpose reference tool. Hanson and Bellows soon found that their set of encyclopedias, like many other works at the time, were ill-suited to the needs of children. Indeed, finding the content and format of encyclopedias too rigid and technical for children, Hanson and Bellows believed that a market existed for reference materials geared specifically toward young people.
In 1915, Hanson and Bellows sought the help of Wisconsin academic Michael Vincent O'Shea. O'Shea was full of ideas about how The New Practical Reference Set could be adapted for a younger audience. In essence, O'Shea thought that the text, while still accurate and informative, should be more engaging and easier to read. He also believed that illustrations could be used with the entries to capture the reader's attention and to provide important visual information. O'Shea spent two years editing the book and molding it to fit his vision.
In 1917, Hanson and Bellows published the results of O'Shea's work, a set of encyclopedias entitled World Book. The first World Book series consisted of eight volumes with 6,300 pages. The text was accompanied by thousands of detailed illustrations and photographs. The Hanson-Roach-Fowler Company was listed as the publisher of the encyclopedia, and O'Shea was its editor in chief. "As a rule, encyclopedias are apt to be quite formal and technical," O'Shea wrote in the preface to the first edition, noting that "a faithful effort has been made in the World Book to avoid this common defect."
The World Book was well received in the marketplace. In fact, the company published a revised edition in 1918 that added two new volumes to the set. Intrigued by the potential of the concept, publisher W.F. Quarrie & Company purchased World Book in 1919. Quarrie would guide and oversee World Book's development over the next 25 years, publishing a revised edition almost every year. The first major revision of the text occurred in 1929, when Quarrie added hundreds of pages of text and illustrations and boosted the number of volumes to 13. As demand for the encyclopedia swelled, Quarrie continued to add new information, and, in 1933, another revised edition was published with 19 volumes.
During the 1930s, Quarrie assembled an editorial advisory board to guide the project's development. Comprised of several distinguished educators, the World Book board conducted a thorough analysis of typical school curriculums to determine exactly what material was being taught in classes from kindergarten through high school. Such ongoing curriculum analysis programs became the foundation of World Book's editorial success during the mid- and late 1900s. The information was used to make World Book more relevant to the school environment and to eventually facilitate the introduction of many other reference volumes and sets geared at school-age kids.
Quarrie launched one of its most successful children's reference sets in the late 1930s--Childcraft--The How and Why Library. The seven-volume Childcraft was created as a sort of encyclopedia for young children. With an emphasis on simple text and illustrations, the books were designed to make learning fun and to give schools an alternative to more traditional published materials. Each volume addressed different subjects, including literature, such as short stories and poetry, as well as mathematics and the sciences. Like World Book, the project was welcomed in the marketplace, particularly by schools and other institutions.
In addition to looking for new markets, Quarrie continued to improve World Book by making it easier to read and more informative. In the 1930s, for example, World Book adopted the "unit-letter" system of arrangement, which allowed readers easier access to the information they sought. World Book gradually became recognized as a leader in the field in terms of ease-of-use and readability. In addition to successfully marketing its books to schools and institutions, Quarrie also prospered by establishing a large direct sales force. Salespeople pitched the encyclopedia as a family learning tool that was more usable than the expensive, formal encyclopedias, such as those published by Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.
In 1945, Chicago magnate Marshall Field III purchased Quarrie (which had changed its name to The Quarrie Corporation in 1936), and Quarrie became a division of Field Enterprises, Inc. In 1958, Field grouped World Book and Childcraft into a separate operation, which he named Field Enterprises Educational Corporation. Although the operation changed ownership, it sustained its business strategy and continued to improve its texts. Two years after the buyout, in fact, a major revision of World Book was published that increased the number of volumes to 19. Similarly, Childcraft was completely revised in 1949, being expanded to include 14 volumes, about twice the size of the original set.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Field Enterprises enjoyed strong demand for its reference books. The nation was experiencing a postwar population and economic boom, and Field's youth-oriented encyclopedias were in high demand. To take advantage of surging markets, the company launched several new initiatives. In 1955, for example, "The Classroom Research Program" was introduced. The program represented an extension of the efforts of World Book's editorial advisory board. Students in classrooms across the nation were asked to fill out cards describing the subjects they had looked for in reference books. This data then informed the encyclopedia's content. By the early 1990s, students were submitting more than 100,000 cards annually.
In 1960, Field completed the third major revision of World Book. In addition to boosting the size of the collection to 20 volumes, the company introduced enhanced graphics to the revised encyclopedia. In 1962, moreover, the World Book Year Book program was started, whereby owners of the World Book could receive an annual volume that updated the information in their set. One year later, the company introduced the World Book Dictionary. The dictionary was similar to the encyclopedia in that it was designed to be very easy to read and contained a large amount of graphics. The two-volume dictionary had grown to resemble a compact encyclopedia by the early 1990s, with nearly 225,000 entries and about 3,000 illustrations.
In 1965, the company published the first edition of Science Year, created in response to the rapidly changing field of science and developed for use with the World Book. Like the Year Book, Science Year represented the beginning of a series designed to generate follow-up sales from existing World Book customers. Also that year, Field began publishing The Childcraft Annual, the Childcraft analogue of the World Book Year Book.
In addition to boosting profit centers, Field continued to improve its reference books during the 1970s. Importantly, World Book added a research guide/index volume to its revised 1972 edition. The new encyclopedia consisted of 22 volumes, and the in-depth index provided readers with an easy means of conducting independent research and cross-referencing different subjects. In 1975, moreover, World Book hopped on the metric bandwagon, adding metric equivalents to virtually all of the measurements in the World Book.
Three years later, Field's reference book operations were purchased by the Scott Fetzer Company, which renamed the division World Book-Childcraft International before changing the name to World Book, Inc. in 1983. A diversified conglomerate, Fetzer was founded in 1914 as a manufacturer of automobile parts. In 1919, the company switched to producing vacuum cleaners and remained a single-product firm until the mid-1960s, when it started to diversify. In the 1980s, another diversified conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., purchased Scott Fetzer. By the early 1990s, Fetzer was operating more than 20 different companies organized in five business groups, ranging from industrial equipment and vacuum cleaners to encyclopedias.
Although growth in sales of reference books to schools had begun to slow by the late 1970s as the baby boom generation aged, the World Book operations had become one of the largest general encyclopedia publishers in the world by the time Fetzer acquired it. And, by the time the baby boom generation started sending their own kids to school in the 1980s, World Book was the most popular encyclopedia in the world, outselling the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica by a margin of three-to-one. The company also boasted the world's largest educational direct sales force, with more than 60,000 people, many of whom worked part-time. Moreover, the company was publishing its Childcraft series in about a dozen languages and shipping to more than 50 countries around the globe.
Under Fetzer's direction, World Book continued to innovate and improve its publications. Between the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the company introduced several new publications and related educational products. In 1987, for example, World Book started selling an international edition of Childcraft. The following year, an extensively revised World Book was introduced with 22 volumes and more than 10,000 new color illustrations. In 1992, moreover, World Book launched an international edition of World Book, targeted toward English-speaking nations outside of North America.
In addition to bolstering its core publications, World Book brought out some completely new books. In 1990, for example, it introduced Young Scientist, a multi-volume set of science-oriented books for children. The set was based on the principles that had guided World Book and Childcraft for so many years: ease-of-use and accuracy. World Book also began publishing World Book Encyclopedia of Science, an eight-volume encyclopedia for young readers in both the institutional and home markets. Other World Book products included: The World Book Atlas; The World Book of People and Places; the Early World of Learning books and products designed for young children; and a range of complementary learning books, videos, and products designed for the youth educational market.
World Book's product diversification during the 1980s and early 1990s reflected a response to slow growth in core encyclopedia markets. Encyclopedia sales had begun to decline in the late 1980s. In fact, domestic encyclopedia sales at both World Book and Britannica, the two industry leaders, plunged about 50 percent during the late 1980s and early 1990s according to some industry sources. Analysts disagreed as to the cause of the drop-off, but many speculated that the rise of the personal computer had something to do with it. Indeed, rather than purchasing encyclopedia sets, segments of both the home and school markets were choosing to funnel money into electronic learning devices, namely computers, which offered more flexibility and were of increasing interest to young people.
In response to surging markets for electronic information, both World Book and Britannica introduced computer products in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Among other CD-ROM products, World Book introduced its Illustrated Information Finder, which contained the entire World Book text, 3,000 pictures and 260 maps, as well as thousands of definitions from The World Book Dictionary. In 1995, an enhanced Information Finder was renamed The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia, which, in addition to the existing features, included animation, video, and audio to make research more informative and exciting. While emerging computer technologies represented an obvious threat to World Book's traditional print business, they also offered potential opportunities. In fact, multimedia systems offered the same advantages that World Book had striven to perfect through its books; multimedia made the reference works easier to access and, because of video and sound, were much more informative and interesting to the user.
Although the company was entering a transition period into an industry environment more focused on electronic technology, World Book nevertheless remained dedicated to its original intent: providing useful, interesting educational tools to young people. Entering the mid-1990s, the company was shipping over one-and-a-half million printed annuals and updates each year and selling its books in over a dozen languages in more than 50 countries on six continents.
Principal Subsidiaries: World Book Direct Marketing; World Book Educational Products; World Book Financial Services; World Book International; World Book Publishing.
- Goerne, Carrie, "Publishers Offer Novels, Encyclopedias in Computer Versions," Marketing News, February 17, 1992, p. 6.
- Harris, Roger, "World Book Encyclopedia Campaign Targets Employers," Business First-Louisville, September 5, 1994, p. 12.
- Langberg, Mike, "CD-ROM Technology Poses Challenge for Encyclopedia Industry," Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, June 26, 1994.
- Toney, Ellen, "Pam Picou's World is World Book," Morning Advocate, August 22, 1993.
- Trivette, Don, "Electronic Encyclopedias Merge Text, High-Res Visuals, and Sound," PC Magazine, September 25, 1990, p. 537.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 12. St. James Press, 1996.