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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Notes, Notes, Notes

I have a friend who has been working on a big adult nonfiction books for years. He is a good writer so he is hoping to reach the general reader, the history buff who is not an academic, even though he is writing about a vast topic that spans centuries. Recently he got the bad news that his publisher wants him to cut a heft chunk of the book. Apparently in the adult world the terrible combination of increasing paper costs and declining sales is putting on the crunch on exactly the kind of book my friend writes. One idea he’s considered is moving the substantial backmatter in the book on to the web. His problem is not exactly the same as ours — and yet it points to the very strange and uncertain place we are all in with regard to our notes, citations, and in general backmatter.

In one way the adult publisher sounded so frozen and silly to me — aren’t they, I wondered, planning to do an ebook version? In E-land there is no printing cost at all. The publisher seems to be bailing out the sinking ship of print, when the e-luxury liner is right there, waiting for it. Now while I read about the booming adult e-book market all the time, I have not looked carefully at what kind of books do well in e-land. Maybe history books are lagging behind mysteries or romance. Though Marina is reading an academic history book on our IPod and she loves it — after neither of us could stand reading Freedom that way. And I know that even if the e-version of a history book can be of any length, my friend would upset if there were no print copies — so the e-answer is only a partial answer.

But even aside from the trevails of adult publishing, where should our notes go, and what should they be. As many of you may know, the World Wide Web was created by Tim Berners-Lee so that you could click through from an article citation to the actual other document. That concept is the genetics of the Web. Some part of me thinks we would be better off if our citations lived in an environment where our readers could follow our research trail at the click of a mouse. And I also assume that soon enough many if not all of the at least middle grade and high school books we write will exist in eform as well as print — as downloads to Smart Boards, for example. So e-citations is just anticipating the next format for our books. And yet in print I love going back and forth between page and notes — I always have one marker in the back and one in the front, so I can follow both trails at the same time — the narrative and how the author constructed it. A book without that support would feel naked, cut off, to me.

I will go on with this on Wednesday, but here are the options: print book with footnotes on the page; print book with notes in back’ print book with notes on the web; ebook with citations embedded in the running text; and then, what I’ll discuss next time, the websphere — the web-capsule — I’ll explain soon.


  1. I’m not clear exactly what you mean by notes, but if you mean additional references, then I think the best place for those is on the web with a print book, for now. I’ve always looked at the list of recommended reading wondering who on earth wants to type all those long websites in. I can see a reader typing in one or two, but any more than that and I’d expect interest to drop right off, especially for kids who may make typos. On a website, you click and it takes you there. Not only that, you can have an infinite number of links online, but there is a limited amount of space in a book. As far as author notes go, I think they belong with the book, wherever that is.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    there are two categories of notes that I have in mind — notes showing where you got your information, and notes designed to encourage young readers (or teachers) to explore further. For the moment the two sit together and, as you say, require all sorts of typing and transcribing. Still having them there physically near the text is somehow assuring. I am exploring the idea of shifting them to the web where, as you say, they will be so much easier to use.

  3. I don’t see a problem with listing additional book references at the end of a book. It’s when I read an entire page of websites and wonder what kid is going to bother with this. Ideally, I think a list of books PLUS a website is enough. Then one trip to that website can take you many other places with very little typing effort and much less frustration. It’s also much easier to update a link that is on a website and very difficult to update a website when it is written in a book. I’ve run across many websites that no longer exist or get rerouted.

    Notes showing where the information came from make interesting reading and I should think could be placed in either place, but would stand more chance of being read if they were with the book. Not everyone is going to get to that website or dive into that additional reading.

  4. Marc Aronson says:

    Linda: Yes that would be a good model — books in books, plus a link to the website where you can find all of the websites.

  5. Mark Weston says:

    My advice to your friend is to keep cutting. You worked with me on “The Land and People of Pakistan” in 1991-2, and later I wrote a 600-page history of Saudi Arabia, “Prophets and Princes,” that Wiley published in 2008. They had me cut 45 pages from the book, so the final version was 550 pages. But looking back, it was still too long.

    People who said they were going to review the book never did, probably because it was
    too big a tome. So tell your friend it is better to cut now than to miss out on reviews later.

    In 2008 I also wrote a children’s book, “Honda – The Boy Who Dreamed of Cars,” published by “Lee and Low.” I have also written a new children’s book about how the
    Danish astronomer Ole Romer discovered the speed of light in 1676 with nothing more than a telescope and a clock. If you have any advice about how to find a publisher for a children’s picture book about science, I would love to hear it.
    Warmest Wishes, — Mark Weston