Online referenceBook publishing is like farming: a lot happens in the spring, summer is pastoral, autumn is hectic and everyone gets drunk in winter. Just now, as Observer readers will know, the Anglo-American book trade is going through one of its seasonal spasms.Charles Frazier, bestselling author of Cold Mountain, has sold his new (unwritten) book to Random House for $5 million and all over Manhattan people who should know better are crying ‘Foul!’ As Mark Twain memorably put it, when people complain that ‘it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing’, you just know it’s the money.Next to the universal view that ‘everyone has a book in them’, there’s a widespread belief that books and money, like Damon and Pythias, go hand in hand. Newspaper headlines reporting multi-million-dollar deals give the public the largely erroneous impression that you have only to serve up what the publishers are looking for to stumble upon riches beyond the dreams of avarice.Big advances certainly attract acres of newspaper coverage, but in the scheme of things they are small potatoes. The real money is found not among the volumes piled high on the table at the front of the bookshop but on the shelves of reference books tucked away at the back next to the fire exit.Works of reference remain the biggest and most profitable business in the world of books. English dictionaries, sold from Oxford to Osaka, generate around £50 million in annual turnover. In this lucrative market, four publishers – Oxford, Collins, Longman and, my favourite, Chambers – slug it out for mastery, with newcomer Bloomsbury, publisher of the Encarta dictionary, snapping towels at the side of the ring.About two years ago, Oxford pulled off a stunning commercial coup by putting its vast lexicographical database online at www.oed.com.For those who love to fossick through the pages of a great dictionary, the OED Online is a remarkable experience. At the click of a mouse, the word-surfer can summon up the etymology of any item of interest from autochthonous to zeugma. Subscribers can retrieve the 60 million words this great dictionary employs to describe the 750,000 terms used in English during the past 1,000 years. It offers a truly astounding picture of the English language as an extraordinary living phenomenon.OUP is now launching a souped-up version, designed to appeal to the colossal reference market, and drawing on a remarkable database – the information stored in its numerous reference books covering the humanities, social sciences, and medicine, from astronomy to zoology.Oxford Reference Online won’t fly you to the Moon, help you get a date with Kylie Minogue, or cure tropical illness, but it will tell you all you want to know about the ‘ZZ Ceti Star’ or the arcana of African folk mythology and, should you care to know it, the ins and outs of Vatican history. It has cost more than £1 million to assemble, and the fact-hungry public can subscribe, initially, for £175 per annum. But I have to confess the experience of browsing this new web-site has left me cold.The Online OED is one thing. It offers a high-speed and highly efficient solution to the quest for lexicographical wisdom to which the definitive and concise genius of its lexicographers is perfectly suited. An online encyclopedia is something else, quite vulnerable to the variable quality of the various Oxford companions on which it draws.Some of these, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, for example, are first class. Others (The Companion to the English Language) are notoriously suspect. So the database is not the flawless engine that powers OED Online. And then, sure, it’s nice to be able to type in ‘American comedy’ and get chapter and verse on ‘Jerome Kern and Stephen Sondheim’, but, quite frankly, do we really need this?OUP obviously thinks so, because it is investing heavily in Oxford Reference Online. But whereas with the OED it was the market leader, this time it is not the undisputed leader in its field. In fact, I had no sooner tapped in my special password when along came a spokesman for Xreferplus, a MacMillan competitor, who, in the nicest possible way, rubbished the Oxford effort, boasted of Xreferplus’s ‘ambitious and innovative operations in the reference area’ and offered to let The Observer browse the online website. (This, by the way, costs a minumum of £500 for ‘institutional’ subscribers, and is ‘not yet’ available to the general public.)All told, the experience has been like being trapped on the doorstep by two competing encyclopedia salesmen. I don’t want to seem like an ungrateful Luddite, but if I want to look something up I’d rather go to the library – and open a book.