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Yearbooks offer a kind of 'annual newspaper' of world events

Wayne Wille runs something of an annual newspaper. Important world events happen unexpectedly. They drag on from one year to the next. And for Mr. Wille, who is executive editor of the World Book Year Book, they sometimes hit the news pages at very inconvenient times.

''Decembers are pure frenzy,'' Wille recalls. It was the month that the Soviets chose to invade Afghanistan (in 1979), that John Lennon was shot (1980), and that President Nixon signed a far-reaching tax bill (1971).

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Such are the trials of America's instant historians.

Every year, World Book and a handful of other companies publish chronicles of the times. They do it on merciless deadlines, and without the benefit of hindsight. Yet yearbooks inspire great loyalty among the staff.

By the end of the year, Sara Dreyfuss, associate editor with the Chicago-based World Book, is putting in 13-hour days on weekdays. On weekends, she works in the office with her coat because the heat is usually shut off. And by the time the 608-page book goes to press, she has read it cover-to-cover six times.

''We get sick of it,'' she admits.

Dan Perkes, an assistant general manager at Associated Press in New York, has fond memories of the yearbook his firm published until 1978. ''We were producing that book as a labor of love,'' he says. But AP was also losing money on it. In the last year alone, it lost about $80,000 on the book.

AP is not alone. Time-Life and other companies used to put out their own yearbooks, he says. But ''outside of encyclopedia companies, it's been very unprofitable for various publishers.''

Encyclopedia yearbooks tend to be more profitable because they have a built-in circulation. And they attract a devoted following among readers.

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For example, World Book sells some 2 million copies each year, almost all of them to people who have bought the encyclopedia and want to keep it up to date. The firm also puts out Science Year, Medical Update, and a desk diary.

And these kinds of offshoots are very profitable, Wille says.

They are a boon to the otherwise flat sales that the encyclopedia industry has experienced in recent years. Unit sales have hovered around 1 million annually for the last five years, according to estimates by the Association of American Publishers, down from the early '70s. In 1972, for example, unit sales were estimated at 1.4 million.

How well have these chronicles covered the big stories over the years?

''We don't miss the big things,'' Wille says. ''We started early on doing things on the environment. . . . Margaret Mead wrote an article (for the Year Book) on the new American woman long before feminism was a word anyone knew anything about.''

And the big events this year?

There are the obvious stories, he says: the downing of the South Korean airliner, the United States entry into Lebanon, and the gearing up of the presidential race. Then there are the signs of the times: more coverage on education and health and fitness. And for the first time the editors have decided to make ''computers'' a separate entry instead of listing it under ''electronics.''

''The world,'' Wille says, ''is a lot more predictable than you think.''

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