How Long Does a Book Take?

I’m asked this often, and most people are very surprised that it takes such a long time. It’s understandable that people who are not in publishing are surprised by this; what I can’t figure out is why people who are in publishing are almost equally puzzled. I tell the people who come to work at The Reference Works, particularly the interns, to be prepared for them not being at the company when the book they work on is published—just as it is rare (and getting increasingly rarer) for an editor to be at the publishing company when a book he or she acquired and developed for that house is published. In some 60-plus books The Reference Works has produce over some twelve years, that number (the ESI—”Editorial Survival Index”) is well below .10—fewer than one-tenth of the editors who acquired the books we have packaged and produced were there at the publishing company when the book finally saw the light of day. I don’t know if there are statistics on this, but (like the stats in baseball that aren’t kept, but are still meaningful, like the runs a relief pitcher allows that are not credited to hie ERA). This is why I always insist that everyone who worked on a book be credited in it (on the copyright page), but some publishers simply brush that aside with impunity.

Now comes a book in the mail last week that was produced by The Reference Works that has a shot at a record: the book began its trek from conception to existence 38 years ago (!) and has now come off press (as the copy I received proves) and will be in book stores in November. The title is “Amazing…But False!” and it’s a compendium of many popular delusions that people harbor–things people think are true but aren’t.

Now the book was born when i was about 20 and a student at Yeshiva College. The phrase, “Amazing…But False!” became a kind of signature phrase that people associated with me. In the Seventies, I actually submitted a proposal to a publisher for such a book—not very different from what was eventually published. It was rejected—possibly because my cover letter was (oy vey!) handwritten. I tried to interest the various publishing companies where I worked in this title over the years. People liked the title and the concept, but the publishers I worked for were never in solid enough shape to take a flier on this.

When I created The Reference Works, I figured this was going to be a sure thing—it’s just the kind of book that packagers package. Still no go.

Then we were asked to submit a bunch of books for consideration by Sterling, then the newly acquired publishing arm of Barnes & Noble. So we tried it again, but this time, there was interest. It was necessary, however, to improve the package, so we added some clever cartoons by a gifted young artists, Nick Meola, and we recruited a veteran Reader’s Digest editor with the right combination of studiousness and whimsy, Dave Diefendorf. We even invited the mentalist and great debunker, James Randi, to contribute a Foreword. And so the book exists.

As an extra bonus, I included an Epilogue to this book under the title, “An Epilogue in 15 Dedications” that contained a capsule intellectual history of the book and its idea. It was supposed to have a subtitle, “If Only I Didn’t Know Now What I Knew Back Then,” but that was taken out. I had fun writing it; I hope you have fun reading it It’s attached as I originally wrote it, which is substantially how it appears in the book.

An Epilogue in 15 Dedications

I can’t honestly say whether this relationship with Sterling will work out, but I will say that, in spite of all the problems, there was a warm glow in the office the day that book came in. A long, long journey had come to an end, and that may be a good way to look at every book.

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3 Responses to “How Long Does a Book Take?”


  1. 1 andnoble September 11, 2007 at 3:00 am

    How can anyone who acknowledges the ridiculous premise of Wikpedia, that “everyone knows everything about everything” scar on the internet, defend books. And you edited science and Talmud? What does Wikpedia say about two people who both find a cloth at the same time. Or a car that falls into a pothole. Or how one can determine daybreak?

    You sound like an entry in your own book – You’re amazing, but what you say has no truth. Sure books are great, but you’d probably defend the horse against a racecar or postage against email. Get into the groove, Harold. This is the 21st century–books have had their day.

    Could you imagine walking down Times Square with a full set of Britanicas in his pocket. Or strolling into a Manhattan yellow pages. How about the complete set biographies of dictators or the list of fools in publishing. Today, massive works can sit in your pocket–but the defender of books is out there with a hernia.

    Cmon, Harold. You’re starting a branding company. In a company with a pretentious name like iideas-you can’t be the defender of books.

    What’s really amazing is that the “protector of the book” uses the internet as his soapbox. Why not write an article, or heaven forbid a book defending itself. A blog defending a book! Until now, I would have called that Amazing but false. It seems however, that your antiquated method of communication using the greatest advance of our generation is not Amazing but false but rather it is the unfortunate truth

    Good luck blogging. Hope you don’t forget how to read.

    What about London Bridge–is it really falling down?

  2. 2 hrabinowitz September 12, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Good to hear from an old friend–“andnoble” and I have known each other for, what, four decades now? Or is it five? He and I went to the same high school and the same college, and his uncle was my elementary school principal. That rabbi and I had a very special relationship: he was always vey interested in my welfare long after I had left the school; he frequently dropped into my parent’s store in Brooklyn and asked after me. He was even at my first wedding, and would have been at my second wedding twenty years later had he been well enough to travel to Pennsylvania.

    From “andnoble’s” comment, you’d never guess he spent a couple of years working in my office (on his own), surrounded by a library of over 10,000 books, or that staring him in the face was a poster for my bokk, “A Passion for Books.” But, all right–let me respond seriously to his comments:

    • I know all the jokes about Wikipedia and I recognize all the flaws, but–and I say this from having talked to many working reference and academic editors–everyone uses it, along with the rest of the internet. It’s as reliable a source of information as material in print, which is to say you shouldn’t take ANYTHING presented as fact uncritcally in whatever medium. Fact is, print material is subject to the same flaws as the internet and Wikipedia. The only difference is, on the internet, the flaws are observable immediately and by many more people. If you think that books–even the venerated Britanica–is immune from politics and personal prejudice from entering onto its pages, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can get you a great deal on.

    • Not only do I defend books, I believe that books will be what saves the internet…from itself…and vice versa: the internet will save books from oblivion and extinction. I’ll post some thoughts (very) soon on what that relationship between printed books and the internet is, could be, should be, and will be, but for now, suffice it to say that a book is a special kind of communication medium, best suited for the conveyance of specific and vital forms of communication; the internet is different and has its own standards and values. If you’re convinced there’s a conflict and that it’s a struggle to the death, then you are missing out on something important.

    • The reference made by “andnoble” to “two people who both find a cloth at the same time” is to the opening of a tractate of Talmud that deals with lost objects. I’ve studied that very section intensively three times over the years and taught it once to a high school class. I am convinced that the message that lay at the foundation of this section (and by extension, to many other sections of the Talmud) has been missed by the commentators. No one has asked some of the basic “So what? questions: Why is this here? What makes this a religious work? What is especially Jewish or rabbinic about it? Why is this in the Talmud in the first place and what is it about this very legalistic problem that is worth dying for–and would make people want to burn it? With each question you get closer to the reason I was a troublesome yeshiva student.

    But I will say this to “andnoble”–you really ought to look at the Talmud on Wikipedia and on the internet. You’d be surprised at how much material there is, and how much there is about this very section of Talmud. In fact, it is in Talmud study–the difference made in Talmud study between surface study (measured in volume) and intensive analysis (measured in depth of understanding)–that one sees vividly the difference between the way a book (a printed page) communicates and the way an internet page communicates.

    To “andnonble” goes my best wishes that he (a) get some sleep; and, to him, his entire family and everyone else go our best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

  3. 3 podblack December 24, 2007 at 1:18 am

    Hello, I have a question – the foreword by Randi, how much input did he have on the content of the book (such as reading it before publication)? I’m currently writing a review of it and about the process of writing such books for a skeptic magazine. 🙂


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