How the HowStuffWorks Book Works 2001

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.