Updating reference books - how it's done

20 Dec 2006 by Jancis Robinson

I write in the middle of my book updating cycle, a period of about four years of intensive revision of The Oxford Companion to Wine and then The World Atlas of Wine that comes round every six or seven years, leaving me barely a third of my life when I don’t have a black cloud of conscience hanging over me urging me back to the keyboard. (This is tnot counting all that I write for this site, my weekly FT column, my bi monthly syndicated columns and a host of other commitments. It's also the reason I have been so slow to produce a successor to Vines, Grapes & Wines however often I am asked to - the grape entries in OCW3 are after all, effectively that, even if many readers express an interest in a book devoted to the subject.) Although to outsiders it might seem that as a wine writer I lead a life of enviable conviviality and travel, for far too much of the time I see nothing more glamorous than my tasting table and desk - as witness how frequently I update this site.
 
The much-revised third edition of the Companion came out a couple of months ago (and a reprint is already underway as it has been selling so fast, especially in the US where those seeking books via Amazon may have to go to the Canadian Amazon.ca to find stock). I probably won’t therefore have to start tackling the fourth edition of the Oxford Companion until 2010 or so, but I am already up to my wine-bedazzled eyes updating The World Atlas of Wine for its sixth edition due out in September 2007.
 
It may not make perfect publishing sense to update one book immediately after another but it is certainly easier for me. It could be dangerous if I were to sniff freedom before tackling the Atlas each time, and besides, it helps to have what I learnt while revising the Companion fresh in my mind.
 
Did I say fresh? Of course the problem with editing and preparing these two massive reference books on wine is that there is just so much material for my increasingly aged brain to retain, analyse and sort. The Companion is made up of nearly a million words of alphabetically arranged articles on wine-related topics that range from the most obvious – appellations, grape varieties, tasting and serving wine – to some of the more obscure – the politics of wine, wine themes in Arab poetry, precision viticulture.
 
This is why I am so thrilled to have for the first time in my life a fulltime assistant, and one whose brain is not just younger than mine but has shown such acuity. Julia Harding is already well known to visitors to this site. She studied French and German at Cambridge (and speaks accent-less French) and then became one of those freelance book editors who instil terror into authors such as myself because they notice every tiny detail and send you a long list of questions once they have read the manuscript. “You said on page 432 that the cru of Chavignol was made up of clay and limestone but on page 836 you mention some Kimmeridgean marne too…?” would be typical of the sort of question an author would have to answer months after writing the original text.
 
Those qualifications alone would be sufficient to make Julia extremely valuable to me but there are many more. In the late 1990s as a result of an evening class she got the wine bug and took the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses. At this stage she wrote to me out of the blue, came to see me and said she would like to work for me please. I laughed and told her I was far too much of a control freak ever to contemplate having an assistant. But she kept repeating this suggestion which made me realise she was the perfect person to squeeze the Oxford Companion into a third of its length to produce the paperback Concise Wine Companion which duly appeared, beautifully copy edited, in 2001.
 
By 2003 she had passed the punishing Master of Wine exams at the first attempt, coming top and, having written a prize-winning dissertation on the wines of the Loire, qualified as an MW in 2004. It was at about this time that I realised how lucky I was that such a person, much more recently steeped in the arcane detail of viticulture and vinification than me, still wanted to work for me and gave in. So Julia Harding has been a very active assistant editor of the new Oxford Companion to Wine, taking responsibility for and dramatically updating all the science entries and copy editing the monstrous million-word manuscript to boot. We maintain this site together, email dozens of times a day and she is particularly good at reminding me gently when I have forgotten to answer a question, make a decision or approve a list.
 
But it is not easy even for two Masters of Wine who taste, read, listen and travel as widely as is humanly possible to keep track of a world that is expanding and evolving as fast as the world of wine, even with the inordinate help of someone as experienced as Hugh Johnson with the World Atlas. Various organisations representing wine regions or even whole wine-producing countries have approached me once they learn a new edition of the Atlas or Companion is underway and invited me to take a leisurely tour of their part of the world. Quite apart from the questionable ethics of being their guest, I know this is simply impossible from the point of view of time. To have the book as up to date as possible when it’s published, it is essential to prepare it in as short a time as we can manage: roughly two years for each. If we were to inspect ever, or even most regions personally, there just wouldn’t be enough time to write about them. Travelling is something to be indulged in mainly in the time between intensive book updating periods.
 
Instead we, like the compilers of virtually all reference books, have to rely on a network of informants, consultants and experts. In the latest edition of the Companion almost 170 authors of articles other than ourselves are cited at the end of a high proportion of the nearly 4,000 articles, and more than 70 of those authors were new to this third edition. With the Atlas it’s a little different. For a start we have access to Hugh Johnson, his golden pen and indubitable good taste. As well as imposing our own ideas, we send out copies of the immensely detailed maps and accompanying texts to both generic bodies and local specialists asking for their suggestions on how to improve and update what’s there. Inevitably some of the representatives of Comités Interprofessionnels, Consejos and the like tend to disagree with any criticisms we may have made, not always with justification, so the process of interpreting feedback requires considerable judgement rather than blind faith. And of course the really important decisions are taken at the planning stage of each new Atlas by Hugh and me: which regions deserve their own map for the first time and which regions mapped in loving detail no longer earn their place in this Atlas that has sold well over four million copies in 14 languages since Hugh launched it in 1971.
 
It is deeply satisfying when these books see the light of day, but the production process is probably very much drier than most readers realise – and as for how they are distributed and sold, that seems an awfully long way from this lonely desk. Interesting though that the day after I appeared on the Charlie Rose Show, the OCW3’s Amazon.com sales ranking leapt from 188 to 92. Hence the shortage of stock apparently.
To order OCW3, click here (although for some reason the links to Amazon don't work for all browsers, I'm afraid.)
 
 
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