Saturday, March 10, 2007

Publisher Q & A: Theodore P. Savas on Cartography

As a person who has always been fascinated with cartography, I am a big stickler for good maps in Civil War books, and nearly always make some kind of special mention of their number and quality in my reviews. Although aesthetics is important, I am usually forgiving of artistically challenged maps if the detail is all in there. Unfortunately, maps are something the big publishers apparently place little emphasis on when they do decide to put out Civil War military studies (the recent Bull Run study Donnybrook is a prime example).

The level of appreciation of the cartographer's labor certainly seems to take its cue from the level of indifference demonstrated from above (see recent post by David Woodbury highlighting an extreme example). I am one of those people that always reads the 'Acknowledgements' and the cartographer is often not even mentioned; and if he is accorded recognition there, the statement is mostly cursory in nature, as if the work done is merely a commodity.

On the other hand, many more (but not all, or even most really) small to medium sized private and university press publishers do recognize the critical importance of cartography. Perhaps the most notable example in the private arena is publisher Ted Savas (of Savas Beatie). Recently, I asked him a few questions about the subject.

AW: Hi Ted. I've noticed over the years with Savas Woodbury, Savas Publishing, and now Savas Beatie that you do much of the cartography for your publications. How did you get into cartography? Do you have any background in the graphic arts before you became a publisher?

TPS:(pictured at left) First, thanks for asking for the interview. I hope your readers find it helpful. I have always loved good maps, so when we began Savas Woodbury (with my pal David Woodbury), our goal was to load up our Civil War Regiments quarterly journal and books with as many high quality maps as possible. Many people told us this philosophy would be too hard to implement, too expensive, not worth the effort. They weren’t too far off the mark! When David and I figured out we could not get the maps we wanted when we wanted them, we decided to learn how to draft them ourselves—and spent endless hours trying to perfect the craft. I do not have a background in graphic arts, and I don’t believe David does either.

AW: Is there a wide range of cartography software available specifically for publishing?

TPS: There is a lot more software available than I am familiar with, so I can’t render an informed judgment on anything other than what used. I know, for example, that there are now 3-D images of terrain you can import and, of course, there are very advanced auto-cad programs.

AW: What do you use for your own work?

TPS: David used Adobe Illustrator and I cut my teeth on CorelDraw! I still use the same program (newer version) because I am comfortable with it.

AW: How significant a cost are maps? Understanding the variables involved, as a ballpark percentage, how much would a reasonable number of detailed maps (say 20) add to the cost of a typical book?

TPS: This is a more difficult question than it might seem. First, are you speaking cost for the publisher or for the author?

AW: How about both?

TPS: Ok. Most publishers put the responsibility on the author for providing maps (and usually have a right to refuse them if they are not worthy of publication). There is still a cost to the publisher, however, because we have to make sure the format is right, size them, import them and make sure everything is correct inside the book. So putting 20 maps into a battle book would add several hours of formatting and editorial time, and time is money.

For the author, hiring someone to draft maps is expensive—especially from scratch. The process is very labor intensive. A typical good (and I stress good) tactical map of a Civil War battle, for example, takes many hours to draw. Then add in additions, corrections, modifications, etc. A map can cost anywhere from $75.00 to several hundred or more, depending upon what you want, how complex it is, and who is doing it. It is even harder if you do them by hand (I don’t do that and never have). Making modifications on hand-drawn maps is a nightmare.

I think if an author is reasonably good with a mouse and computer, there are enough map samples out there to find what you like, and inexpensive software. So every author should try drafting a few maps himself. After a few days of that, most authors pull their hair out. At that point, the cartography bill some guy quoted for 12 maps look cheap.

AW: Sadly, all too many publishers—large and small—make maps a very low priority, and, even when present, they are often unsophisticated or in some manner lacking usefulness. One of the best things that can be said about your many publishing efforts is you've never cut corners on both number and quality of maps. As a publisher, do you have a map "philosophy?”

TPS: I do have a philosophy: the more quality maps the better, and you can never have enough of them. We have several projects underway now that are map-intensive, and I put my foot down firmly on more than one occasion when an author/cartographer tried to cut corners and turn in maps I do not believe are suitable for a Savas Beatie book. This is not unusual, because the process is tedious and frustrating, and guys tied to making the maps get tired and want to reach the end. But if you want good maps, it means going “back to the drawing board”—over and over. But the reward is a lovely book everyone can be proud of forever. That is always worth the extra effort or expense.

AW: How closely do you work with your authors to make sure the text and maps match as closely, logically, usefully, etc. as possible?

Very close. As I explained recently in a different interview with Joe Wikert [Part 1, 2, 3, 4], we strive to form relationships with authors, and that means we talk about every step of the process—including map placement. We ask authors to send in the map list with a string of text by each map we can search out so we can anchor a map next to it. When the galley comes out, we ask the authors to carefully examine map placement to make sure they are exactly where they want them. Some authors, unfortunately, are not cooperative and are just plain difficult to work with, but most of our authors are wonderful and so working closely with them in this manner is one of the joys of my work.

AW: When publishers of campaign and battle studies skimp on maps, do you think it is primarily a lack of understanding or cost (or both)?

TPS: Hmm. I think you are trying to get me into trouble. (laughing) I think it depends on the publisher. Let me give you an example. And I will be frank about it. I reviewed a battle book published about ten years ago on an Eastern Theater action (I can’t remember where the review appeared). The maps were staggeringly plentiful (70 or so if I recall), but they were the worst examples of maps I had ever seen. I hesitate to call them maps. In fact, I wrote exactly that in the review (“the worst maps ever published”). Essentially, they were nothing more than topo maps with magic marker lines on them (you could not distinguish fences from troop positions). Word and geographic features were cut off around the edges and the maps were oriented haphazardly on the pages. I wrote to the publisher and asked if this was the final version of the book, or if a mistake had been made. The letter back to me blamed the author, and said it was his responsibility to provide maps. That is what my grandfather used to call a steaming shovel full of . . .

Now, I have been publishing books for 17 years. I would never—ever—publish maps like that under any circumstance. I would cancel the book before I put out trash like that. So in that instance, I don’t think the publisher cared at all what the maps looked like. They were more interested in advertising that the book had dozens of tactical maps. Ultimately, that cheats the buyer who shells out a lot of money only to discover the “maps” are worse than useless.

Other publishers agree to arrange for maps, so you only see one or two, usually copied straight from the OR Atlas (which in most cases do not translate well into grayscale, smaller book form). That would be because of cost.

But many publishers just don’t get it. I have always tried to craft the book I would want to buy. More maps is expensive for everyone, but more maps often result in better reviews, better word of mouth, and an overall better book, which in turn translates into happier customers who believe they got their money’s worth. And that, in turn results in more sales. At least that is how I look at it.

AW: Is there anything you'd like to mention that I didn't ask about?

TPS: Yes. If you buy a book and it has no maps or the few it has are next to worthless, write or call the publisher and ask for a refund. Take the book back to the store and return it, or don’t buy it in the first place. We are all customers and we can help drive the market.

It is also important to recognize that, in my opinion, small presses routinely turn out better and more interesting and diverse material than the big houses. For example, we saw a niche for good maps (no one that I recall was doing maps like David and I set out to do), and we filled it. We saw a niche for good original (unique) battle material, and we filled it. And we continue to do so, today expanding to cover other historical areas, but always striving to make sure our titles are unlike anything else out there you will find.

Finally, I hope your readers will patronize book publishers who give them more bang for their buck. If those publishers shut their doors (and many have in the past ten years), where are you going to get the material smaller presses turn out? Random House? Simon and Schuster? Try getting them to look at your manuscript. On occasion, big houses publish military history titles, including Civil War. But they usually are less than impressive when it comes to the cartography found inside.

(P.S. If anyone orders a book and mentions this interview, we will pay the shipping.)

DW: That's certainly my experience as well. Thank you, Ted, for your time, opinions, and insights; and I'll be looking forward to viewing what you've come up with in the map department for the upcoming Beatie Vol. III and Shiloh books.


  1. Drew,

    You comment on the fact that cartographers are seldom mentioned in the acknowledgments. Could this be because they usually charge for their work? When an author pays a cartographer for a map, the cartographer has been compensated for his work, and the work is not really a "contribution." Cartographers who will contribute their work are hard to find - but they are greatly appreciated.

  2. The distinction of compensated vs. free contributions doesn't strike me as relevant, but it's an interesting thought! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Interesting observation, Steve. But dust jacket artists are also paid for their work (sometimes as a work for hire) but their work is still credited on the jacket. It is common courtesy to acknowledge cartographers. When my authors forget to do so, I so it for them. tps

  4. Drew--looks like you maybe forgot to close a bold tag /b at the end of the last sentence here. Everything below it seems to have taken on a dark and foreboding nature.

    Yr. friend the Format Fairy.... :)

  5. Xan the fairy man,
    I had no idea what you were talking about (I used Netscape and the formatting is fine) so I opened IE and you are right that the rest of the posts beyond the Savas interview are in bold.

    It was an easy fix. Hard to believe the posts aren't comparmentalized so that a tagging error would spread to all the others on the rest of the page. Thanks again for bringing it to my attention!


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