How the HowStuffWorks Book Works 2001

We pick up and read books all the time. They are made up of words and pictures printed on paper, and they have been around for thousands of years. The final product looks fairly simple, but have you ever wondered how it all gets put together? It turns out that creating a book involves an unbelievable amount of work performed by dozens of people!

In 2001, we created two books:

  • "How Stuff Works" is a full-color, illustrated guide to -- you guessed it -- how stuff works. It contains over 140 of the most popular articles on the site and combines them with amazing new illustrations and photographs.

  • "How Much Does the Earth Weigh?" is a fun, fascinating book containing more than 100 of the most popular questions from our Web site's Question of the Day feature.
In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll take you behind the scenes to see how the books "How Stuff Works" and "How Much Does the Earth Weigh?" were created. It's good to keep in mind, as you are reading this article, that we were actually working on both books simultaneously so that they would have the same release date. As you will see, this kept everyone very busy!

Some of the book engineers!
Listed from left to right:
Back row - Karim, Rick, Tom, Gary, Jeff, Julia, Beth, Kevin
Middle row - Scott, Katherine, Debra, Craig, Michael, Bobby
Front row - Marshall, Sally

In the Beginning

The Book Engineers
How many people does it take to produce one book? Here's a list of those who contributed to the HowStuffWorks book. This list does not include people who were consulted for opinions of the cover or internal design, or those involved with physically printing the book -- that would add about 50 people to the list.
  • Marshall Brain

  • Brian Adkins
  • Cynthia Anderson
  • Rick Barnes
  • Sheilah Barrett
  • Kevin Bonsor
  • Gary Brown
  • Charles Floyd
  • Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.
  • Sally Guaspari
  • Gerald Gurevich
  • Tom Harris
  • S. Kristi Hart
  • Lucas Hoffman, M.D.
  • Kitty Jarrett
  • Cindy Kitchel
  • Michael Kroll
  • Michele Laseau
  • Julia Layton
  • Scott Loftin
  • Kathy Nebenhaus
  • Katherine Neer
  • Karim Nice
  • Roxanne Reid
  • Beth Richards
  • Natasha Richards
  • Melissa Russell-Ausley
  • Barbara Suszynski
  • Anita Thomas
  • Jeff Tyson
  • Julie Warren
  • Kevin Watt
There are dozens of other people who have contributed to the book. We'd like to extend our appreciation to everyone for their efforts.
To create a book you need:
  • The idea
  • The words
  • The art
  • The cover
  • The layout
  • Several rounds of copy-editing and proofreading
Most book projects start with an idea. Usually the idea turns into a proposal that gets pitched to a publisher. A proposal normally contains:
  • a description of the book
  • a table of contents
  • a sample chapter or two that lets the publisher get a feeling for how the book will "sound."
In our case, we've been extremely fortunate to be able to work with Kathy Nebenhaus of Hungry Minds. She approved the proposals for both of our books and we got started.

Once the proposal is accepted, a book goes down one of two tracks:

  • If the book is largely words, then the author starts writing.
  • If the book has lots of illustrations, especially color illustrations, then things are somewhat more involved. Many book projects start with the writing and others start with the illustrations or photos and add the complementary text later. Sometimes both happen simultaneously -- a lot of children's books are done this way.

For "Marshall Brain's HowStuffWorks," our goal was to collect together more than 100 of the most popular articles from the thousands of topics on the Web site. We wanted to completely re-illustrate these articles with hand-drawn illustrations and photographs.

For our second book -- "How Much Does the Earth Weigh?" -- we wanted to collect about 100 or so of the most popular questions from our Web site's Question of the Day feature.

Article Ideas
As you may know, HowStuffWorks publishes two or three topics every day on our Web site. Picking new topics is something we think about all the time. Between what we've already written about and what we plan to cover, we have thousands of topics. Here at HowStuffWorks, we have a conference room filled with Post-It notes that chronicle all of the articles scheduled for the next four or five weeks and all of the partial articles that are currently in motion.

Not only do we have ideas on lists in the conference room, but there are suggestion lists in the breakroom by the Foosball table and above the printer in the content area. We also get concepts for articles from:

  • Company brainstorming sessions
  • E-mail from our readers
  • Suggestions from the Forums
  • Statistics on what's popular on our site
  • Current news events
  • Personal interests of our writers

Article ideas posted inside the conference room

Article suggestions e-mailed from our readers

There are ideas everywhere!

Words, Words, Words

The concept behind "Marshall Brain's HowStuffWorks" was to take 140 of the most popular articles on the Web site and bring them to life in book format. To do this, we started with a database search.

Every time someone reads an article at HowStuffWorks, it creates a record in the database. The database makes it possible to ask all sorts of questions about the history of the site. In this case, we looked at the top 200 articles. Then Katherine mocked up the first table of contents. After coming up with 11 subject groupings -- the chapters -- she allocated the appropriate topics and articles to each chapter, including attachments like sidebars and lists. This book contains 140 different articles and 151 sidebars. Craig, Jeff, Karim, Kevin, Tom and Marshall did most of the writing, and Katherine and Marshall worked out all the sidebars.

Once written, the articles had to be edited for style, so that the voice and reading level would be the same. Then they had to be edited again, but this time for size. Each article had to be either trimmed or expanded to fit into the space available. Marshall went through every article in the book and brought it into the proper size range. Katherine and Marshall did the fine-tuning and editing to get the sizing perfect.

Copy-edited pages of "How Airplanes Work"

The "fitting" part is especially interesting. Size is never a problem when you publish on the Web, but it is extremely important when printing on paper. At the beginning of the project, a basic framework is decided upon, including a rough estimate of the page count and trim size (actual dimensions) of the book. With that in mind, you can go through the table of contents to see how many pages you will have for each article. This sounds fairly straightforward: Let's say you have 200 pages available and 100 articles; it seems like that would mean two pages per article. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

It's really like an incredibly intricate puzzle. When you look at the topics we cover in this book, you can see that certain concepts merit more discussion than others. For example, it took four pages to explain how submarines work and two pages to explain boomerangs. Initially, we had allocated five pages for submarines and only one page for boomerangs. Until you actually start to do the layout, it's difficult to know exactly how much space you really have. So, the fitting starts out with a lot of guess work and is quickly followed by a lot of trial and error.

Picture This...

One of the best parts of the book "Marshall Brain's HowStuffWorks" is the illustrations. Our goal was to give this book a very distinctive look and feel with the art. We were fortunate to find and work with Charles Floyd to illustrate the book. Each article in "HowStuffWorks" has art, in the form of 3-D drawings, diagrams and photos. Charles did an amazing job on the illustrations, and Rick and Roxanne did the photographs. Each illustration was hand-drawn, scanned, colored and proofed. For the photos, we purchased and disassembled objects, photographing each one from many different angles.

Whenever we write an article or an answer to a question, we research, investigate and deconstruct things to get to their essence -- so we can truly see how they work. We do this to understand the topics and to be as accurate as possible in our explanations to you. Charles used a similar approach to creating the illustrations for this book. He did a lot of reading and spoke to most of the writers. Gary helped by doing research for Charles and providing extra material and photos when necessary. In order to get the full story here, it's good to look at one particular illustration and walk through the process.

Getting ready to fly

Packing up for the night

In preparation for writing the article on How Hot Air Balloons Work, Marshall, Roxanne and Tom went on a hot-air-balloon ride with CargoLifter. They took about a hundred photos on their adventure and shot video for one of our television spots. After Tom wrote the article, he gave it to Katherine and Marshall to be edited. As they were working on it, they gave a copy to Charles to read. When Charles was finished, he and Tom got together and went through the photos from the ride and a few sketches that Tom had prepared while working on the article. As they were talking, Charles made several sketches in his sketch pad.

Tom's sketches of a hot air balloon

Charles took all of their work and notes home to his studio and drew an illustration of a hot air balloon. Once he had a finished drawing, he scanned it and colored it on his computer. Finally, the illustration was complete, so he brought it back to the HowStuffWorks office. Charles, Rick and Tom took a look at it together and Tom made a few suggestions, such as including the HowStuffWorks logo. Just a few tweaks later, the illustration was perfect and ready to be used in the blad. We'll talk about the blad a little later in this article. Below, you can see the illustration from the blad and the illustration that appears in the book:

Charles' illustration of a hot air balloon

Hot-air-balloon illustration in layout

Charles went through this process, or something very similar to it, over 100 times to complete each of the illustrations.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Usually, when you go to the bookstore, it's the title and the cover of a book that draw your attention. Bearing that in mind, you can see how the cover of any book takes on a life of its own, and this cover was no different. At about the same time that Marshall and the other writers started working on the words for both books, Sheilah and Rick started working on the cover for "Marshall Brain's HowStuffWorks." Michele, the creative director at Hungry Minds, Inc., and the team in New York worked on cover ideas, too. It was one of the first things we started working on and it was pretty much the last thing to be finalized!

Essentially, Rick and Michele swapped cover treatments via e-mail, and then we all got together and discussed them. With Rick, Sheilah, Katherine and Marshall in a conference room here at HowStuffWorks, and Michele, Kathy and Cindy in a conference room at their office in New York, we went over the concepts point-by-point via conference calls. This was one of the most exciting parts of the entire project, but it also took a lot of time. There we all sat with more than a dozen beautiful covers. And everyone had really different ideas about what they liked and didn't like about each one. Here are just a few of the initial cover treatments:

"Big Gear" cover treatment

"Sidewalk" cover treatment

"Yellow Gear" cover treatment

"Montage" cover treatment

"Modern" cover treatment

"Big Gear II" cover treatment

This entire project was truly a team effort, and the cover was something that just about everyone was involved with. Once we had looked at the covers and narrowed it down to fewer than a dozen possibilities, the team at HowStuffWorks and the team in New York showed the samples to people in their offices. A wide variety of people (perhaps 50) had opinions and gave input. Rick, Sheilah and Michele then went back and worked on more treatments and we went through the entire process of meeting and reviewing them all over again. Eventually, Michele pulled all of those ideas together to create the final cover that you see today.

Final cover

If you were to add it all up, something like 500 or 1,000 hours of time goes into producing and finalizing a cover like this. Once the cover was decided for this book (we like to call it "the big book"), the cover for "How Much Does the Earth Weigh?" was worked out pretty quickly. If you look at the two covers side by side, it's easy to see that the design for the big book definitely had an impact on the design for "How Much Does the Earth Weigh?".

Piecing it Together

Sample Book Schedule
1/15/01 First round of design
1/18/01 Design meeting
2/28/01 Batch 1 of manuscript sent to HMI
3/14/01 Batch 1 copy-edited material back to HSW
3/14/01 Batch 2 of manuscript sent to HMI
3/20/01 Batch 1 changes integrated and back to HMI
2/28/01 Batch 1 of manuscript sent to HMI
In layout, you create a template that will act as a standard format for holding all of the words and pictures. Then you lay the pictures, sidebars, titles, page numbers and everything else into that template. During the layout process, you wrap all of the words around everything else on the page. Most pages in this book have pieces of art and other features in different positions, and the words flow around them. Layout is a fascinating, detailed process. If you have ever seen a dry-stacked stone wall in New England, where every stone fits together perfectly to make a wall that needs no mortar or cement, then you understand something about the layout process.

Similar to the back-and-forth collaboration for the cover art, Sheilah and Michele created the template together. Once the foundation was ready, Cynthia worked on placing all of the words, sidebars, lists and illustrations in just the right place. As Cynthia was working through this process, she, Katherine and Rick worked together to make adjustments to the words and art so that everything would fit perfectly. Sometimes the copy was running too long, so Marshall and Katherine would have to take another look at the words to see if there was a more concise explanation. Other times there was a need for a more detailed illustration to complement the text, so Rick would re-evaluate the art and photos to see how to best answer that situation.

Once the layout was underway, it was time to read!

Getting the Words Just Right

Copy-editing and proofing is a two- or three-phase process in which people go over the text, cleaning up mistakes in grammar, spelling and style. Cindy, Kitty and Katherine did this work. It takes a certain stamina to go over hundreds of pages of text with a fine-tooth comb like that.

Copy-edited pages of "How Airplanes Work"

Obviously, it's a little too daunting to think about working through the entire book in one sitting. With over 300 pages, that would be quite a job. To best handle the work-flow, things were done in batches. There were three batches to work with, and at any given moment everyone was working on at least one batch, if not two at a time. Charles and Rick might have been reworking the photos in batch two, while Cynthia was finishing up the layout for batch three. At the same time, Cindy, Kitty and Katherine might have been working on the proofing and editing of batch one and two.

Here you can see Kitty's, Cindy's and Katherine's comments.

Kitty went through the pages, marked typos and then sent the batch to Cindy. Cindy quickly went through the pages, making comments along the way, and then mailed the batch to Katherine. Katherine read through the articles, checking Kitty's and Cindy's corrections and comments and adding her own.

Notice all the Post-It flags -- these are all large corrections that had to be run past Marshall before they could be made. This is from the first pass of Chapter One.

Once Katherine finished going through all the pages, she met with Cynthia to go over them and Cynthia made the adjustments using Quark. Batch by batch, the words and art were trimmed or stretched, moved here and there until it truly started to come together and look like a real book!

Looks Like a Book!

Now you have something that is starting to resemble an actual book. At this point, it's time to work on the remaining pieces like the table of contents, the index and the front and back matter -- all the "stuff" that you find at the beginning and end of the book. For us, this was a fun but surprisingly time-consuming process. Since the actual cover wasn't quite finished, we were having an interesting time trying to make the design of the table of contents, title page and other front and back matter "fit." The process for this was a lot like working on the cover. Rick, Michele, and Cynthia created treatments and then we all met to go over everything. Eventually, it was all was finalized and the blues (proofs) were sent to press. Depending on the printer, "blues" look either like regular laser proofs or they're kind of funny-smelling pages of light blue paper with blue ink -- hence the name "blues."

Meanwhile, there was another process going on to get the book into the bookstore. This process was led by Kathy and implemented by Michele, Cindy and the sales force. Michele and Cindy created a blad -- an eight-page mini-book that acts as a sample. The "How Stuff Works" blad contained three short articles, a sample cover and several different pieces describing the book.

The sales force uses the blad to talk with buyers at bookstores, discount stores, warehouses and so on to generate interest in the book and, ideally, orders for it. As these orders are fulfilled, you are able to find the book on a shelf in a store so you can buy it and take it home.

Cover of the blad: Notice how it closely resembles the final cover.

The incredible thing about projects like this is that all of these different threads are running simultaneously. The words, art, sidebars, proofing, cover, layout and sales processes were all taking place at the same time, with everyone coordinating and working together to get everything done on time. At any given point, perhaps two-dozen people were working on the book in some way. In addition to the processes described here, there were lots of daily meetings and discussions that had a huge impact on the finished product. Little things like the color-coded bars at the tops of the pages, and the different types of sidebars -- "Cool Facts," "And Another Thing...," "Did You Know?" -- were all ideas that germinated during those discussions.

If you have ever seen a movie being produced, you will recognize the same sort of process. In a big movie, hundreds of people are working together to get the project done in a short amount of time. One of the most amazing things about a project like this is watching individuals work together toward a common goal. It allows us to accomplish extraordinary things in much less time than it would take any single person, and this type of teamwork is the underpinning of our society as a whole. It is a crucial part of how people get things done -- together!

For more information on "How Stuff Works," "How Much Does the Earth Weigh?" and lots of related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Links

Other Great Links