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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Sometimes You Just Have to Tip Your Hat

In This Case, to a Publisher

I don’t like to talk about my own books in this blog — I see myself here as an advocate for great non-fiction for young readers, not an author shilling for his own works. But there is a story I have to tell, and it happens to have to do with a book of mine. As I’ve written here, I had the good fortune of meeting and working with the Riverside Project (the archaeological team at Stonehenge) during their digs in 2007 and 2008. I learned about their work, and wrote about it in a book due to be published this spring (If Stones Could Speak). The ms. was done on time — my packaging partner John W. Glenn and I got all of the photos and maps, finished up the backmatter, copy editors and proof readers did their close checking and we sent the files off to be printed.
       And then, in the fall of 2009, just as books began to roll off the press, Mike Parker Pearson — lead archaeologist and spokesman for the Riverside team — told us that they had made a new discovery. They had found a new stone circle, and had good reason to believe some of those "bluestones" were later moved up the hill to Stonehenge. This was big, very, very big. It left us, and, more to the point, National Geographic, with a big decision — finish printing a book that was already outdated, or trash the printing, fix the book (which would mean not only adding photos of the new discovery, but changing all the linked timelines, biographies, descriptions of year by year work, and overall summary of the goals and accomplishments of the Riverside Team). This was no light decision — it would mean losing money in order to get something right. I have to credit National Geographic — they did the right thing. They took the book off press. They mocked up a few corrected copies to show reviewers, they gave us a weekend to fix everything — which we did — and they reprinted the book. 
     Sure our book was fine — and we could have waited to print a "revised edition" a year or two later. But that would not have been fair either to readers or buyers. Instead the publisher took the hit. Once again I don’t like using this space to say anything about my own work — but in this case, the hero is the publisher, and so Thanks National Geographic, you done good.


  1. Linda Zajac says:

    It seems to me that updating e-books would be less cumbersome and less expensive for a publisher than updating a printed book. Printing an outdated book does not sound like a great idea for anyone–author, publisher and readers too.

  2. one of the problems with ebooks as they now exist is that they do not handle art very well — the flow of art and text as in the printed book is not matched in the reader. Photos, paintings,and maps plays such a key role in non-fiction for younger readers that I just do not see how the technology can be used with our books. Someday this will be fixed — but that is not the case now.

  3. Linda Zajac says:

    Is that because of the size or are they unable to handle color? If size is the constraint, they could always come up with a reader the size of an opened picture book (maybe they have?) and display 2 pages at one time with the art. But if color is the issue, that will take technology to fix.
    Now, you’ve got me wondering how sidebars are handled.

  4. actually the main constraint is neither size nor color it is flow — when you make text available for ereaders, you cannot control page size, so where in the printed book you have, say 100 words of text, an image, and a 20 word caption making up a single page, on the ereader you might have a page of 100 words, a new page with the image, and the caption on a third — and that problem is made worse because the flow is not consistent across readers. You can flow text — though even there, you have to lose distinctive typography such as large capitals to begin sections (“drop caps”). Ereaders can handle plain vanilla text — they are fine for 19th century novels. So far they do not have a way to deal with designed pages where art flows with text. Perhaps this is different for the iPad, but you would not release a book that works in only one format. Or you would only do that for a very special project whee using the gee whiz features of the iPad makes up for the loss of any sales to Kindle or Nook or the other ereaders.

  5. Linda Zajac says:

    It should be pretty obvious that I don’t own one. I didn’t realize they had that limitation. I thought ereaders could handle newspaper articles so I figured they could display both text and black and white photographs, but I guess I am wrong. An illustration that corresponds to text on the prior page is certainly not a good way to go. From what you wrote it sounds like it will be easier to design books to fit ereaders of the future than it will be to take existing books and convert them. Okay, if that is the case, then updating ebooks WITHOUT art (YA/adult fiction) has got to be much easier than updating printed books without art. I like this blog, it gets the gears going.