In the library of Oak Hill Elementary School in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan., one set of books gets used more than most: the almanacs.
"For class work and even for fun, the kids love to sit and read them for hours," said Sharon Coatney, the school's librarian. "Children are fascinated with trivia and new things. They love to ask each other 'Did you know such and such?' and almanacs give them a lot of such and suches."
Almanac publishers have counted on schools to introduce new generations of buyers to their books. Even in the era of CD-ROMs and the Internet, with their promise of vast storehouses of information, publishers remain enthusiastic about the business of almanacs, especially general-interest books like the World Almanac and Book of Facts and the Information Please Almanac.
Two big publishers entered the almanac market this year, bringing out The Wall Street Journal Almanac and The New York Times Almanac.
The economics of almanacs is appealing to publishers, because they can bring out new books every year at a relatively low cost. Although each year's edition will include new articles and other updated information, much of the data can be recycled from year to year. Moreover, although almanac sales are quite large by publishing standards, there are no big-name authors demanding huge advances and royalties.
There is, of course, a wide variety of almanacs available, with some focusing mainly on sports or entertainment -- or on the weather as the Old Farmer's Almanac does. But the most popular are the general-interest almanacs, which compile hundreds of thousands of facts about a broad range of topics, from abortion to the zodiac. An estimated 2 million of these almanacs are sold each year, for less than $11 apiece.
And a large number of those sales occur during the holiday season. The new almanacs dated 1998 appeared in bookstores in November and early December, and they are favored by some gift shoppers.
"These books are phenomenal sellers, especially during this season," said Robert Wietrak, a vice president of merchandise at Barnes & Noble. His stores sell 75 percent of their almanacs from November through January.
"Everyone likes almanacs, and they make great stocking stuffers," he said. "We will sell about 300,000 almanacs altogether. That would make almanacs one of our top 10 nonfiction books for the year."
The giant in this category is the 130-year-old World Almanac, published by Primedia Reference Inc. It sells about 1.2 million copies each year, more than double the sales of its nearest competitor, the Information Please Almanac, published by Information Please LLC.
Now, Ballantine Books, a unit of Advance Publications that publishes The Wall Street Journal Almanac, and Penguin Reference Books, a subsidiary of Pearson PLC that publishes The New York Times Almanac, are each betting that the name of a big national newspaper will provide a competitive edge.
"The almanac publishing business is a tough game," said John W. Wright, general editor of The New York Times Almanac. "To market against the World Almanac, you need another brand name, and that's where The Times comes in."
Ronald Alsop, editor of The Wall Street Journal Almanac, has a similar view. "Taking on the existing almanacs is not easy, because you have to be truly distinctive to stand out," he said.
To that end, The Wall Street Journal Almanac has adopted some of the look and feel of the newspaper, with the articles and charts being provided by The Journal's staff.
Alsop, who is also a news editor at The Journal, which is owned by Dow Jones & Co., contended that his almanac was more forward-looking than its competitors. "Other almanacs have the history of the Liberty Bell," he said, "but is that really what people want to know? We have information that is relevant to people as we approach the year 2000. For example, we tell you what the fastest-growing occupations will be between now and 2005."
The New York Times Almanac, meanwhile, portrays itself as the "almanac of record," and Wright said the book reflected the newspaper's "thorough coverage of the U.S. and the world."
Unlike The Wall Street Journal Almanac, which was created from scratch, The New York Times Almanac has some of its roots in a prior book, the Universal Almanac.
Wright was previously the editor of the Universal Almanac. Its publisher, Andrews & McMeel, decided to discontinue the book with the 1997 issue. The Universal Almanac was well respected and comprehensive, but its sales were lower than those of its competitors.
But Wright owned the rights to the content of the Universal Almanac, so he approached The New York Times Co. with the idea of creating a new almanac with the newspaper's name on it. Penguin was then brought in as the publisher.
The New York Times Almanac includes a good deal of information from the Universal Almanac, although Wright rejects contentions by rivals that the old almanac is merely repackaged. He noted that some members of The Times news staff contributed articles about the major news events of the year, as well as the maps in the book.
It is too early to tell whether the new books are making a serious dent in the market share of the older books. Ballantine said its first print run of The Wall Street Journal Almanac was 165,000 copies, while Penguin said it also printed 165,000 copies of The New York Times Almanac.
The World Almanac also traces its roots to the newspaper business. The first edition of the almanac was published by The New York World in 1868. That almanac ceased publication in 1876, but Joseph Pulitzer, who acquired The World in 1883, revived the book in 1886, and it has been published since then by various companies.
By most counts, almanacs tend to be impulse purchases that are not regularly repeated. According to Richard Eiger, publisher of the World Almanac, about 20 percent of his customers buy new almanacs every year, and about 50 percent buy new copies every two to three years.
Eiger said he was not overly worried by his new competitors. "We respect the competition and are alert to it," he said.
And Elizabeth Buckley Kubik, general manager of Information Please LLC, also showed little concern about the new almanacs. "We don't consider them players, because we are not sure if they are in it for the long run," she said. The Information Please Almanac, which has been published since 1947, is seeking a competitive advantage by providing a midyear update to book buyers who want it.
Regardless of the competition, Eiger said the World Almanac would maintain its $500,000 marketing budget. The others are estimated to spend at least $100,000 each.
He did point out, however, that the World Almanac did not raise its retail price from $9.95 a copy. The others are all $10.95 each.
Eiger said he was not surprised that almanacs sell well, even with competition from the Internet and CD-ROMs. "Our almanac allows you to get to specific information without trawling through dozens of Web sites to find it," he said.
Others have a similar view. "Finding information on the Internet can be a nightmare," said Barbara Berliner, coordinator of NYPL-Express, a fee-based research service of the New York Public Library. "With an almanac it's quicker, easier and more accurate."
Still, the almanac publishers are developing online projects. For example, Ms. Kubik of Information Please said her company had invested "a seven-figure sum" to open a World Wide Web site next month.
Meanwhile, at the Oak Hill Elementary School, the library is acquiring about 30 copies of the 1998 World Almanac. "As soon as the new books arrive, they are snapped up by the kids," Ms. Coatney said. "They will use them and use them until they fall clear apart."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company