Vintage Books Uses ‘New Approach’ to Crashing a Book Project
Official government documents may not have topped most holiday wish lists in the past, but several such reports found their ways under Christmas trees with increasing frequency the last several years. “The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward—A New Approach” hit bookshelves in early December 2006 and, like a couple of its recent predecessors, has earned overwhelming success. Already in its third printing at the time of this story, the book’s release was made all the more remarkable by the circumstances surrounding its publication: a 24-day turnaround time.
Government reports have, on occasion, sounded blips on literary radar screens in the past—perhaps most notably “The Starr Report” in 1998 and “The 9/11 Commission Report” in 2006, which has sold more than 1 million copies. But what sets apart “The Iraq Study Group Report” was the unprecedented time-crunch challenge overcome by its publisher, Vintage Books. Vintage, a trade paperback imprint of Random House, churned out the best seller in just over three weeks and did so, says Senior Editor Andrew Miller, without seeing any of the book’s copy until the weekend it shipped. Just a couple of weeks later, more than a quarter-million books were in print.
In order to accomplish the ambitious task, Vintage had to first convince the Iraq Study Group (ISG) of Vintage’s competence and capabilities. The publisher, known for such smash hits as Bill Clinton’s “My Life” and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” bid against three other companies for the right to publish this title. Vintage won, Miller says he was informed, for “our [quick] turnaround time, and that we thought we could ship … more copies than the other [bidders]. Their goal was to get [the book] out widely, and that we gave them the best chance of doing that.” Promising quick results and widespread distribution may have won the ISG’s faith, but delivering on that pledge was an undertaking Vintage had never encountered before.
Despite his initial skepticism, Miller says he eventually realized the book was an opportunity too golden to pass on. After Democrats seized control of both houses of Congress and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld left his post the next day, Miller says, “I went into my boss’s office that afternoon and said, ‘Look, everything has changed. We definitely need to do this.’” The following Monday—Nov. 13—Vintage got word it had won the bid, and Miller flipped on an internal fast-forward switch.
Making the Book
“We needed to immediately create a type-set design, a layout, that would be specific enough to be helpful [to the printer], but also flexible enough to account for the fact that we hadn’t actually seen any of the content,” he says.
Next up: designing a cover for a book whose contents he had yet to see. The ISG had already selected a title, and had specified that each commissioner’s name appear somewhere on the front or back cover. There were also a few supporting organizations whose names needed to be present, and Miller says Vintage decided to include a line about the charity that would be receiving proceeds from the book’s sales.
Other than that, Miller and his staff had little with which to work. And yet they settled on a cover design in about a week and, perhaps more impressively, obtained the go-ahead from the commission to send it to press on Nov. 21. This was no small feat, points out Miller, who says “there’s always a risk that there are going to be too many cooks. But all along [the commissioners] were actually extremely cooperative and flexible.”
The next obstacle meant tracking down someone who could copyedit the book in rapid fashion. As it turned out, the copyeditor who worked on “The 9/11 Commission Report” was available. However, instead of the eight months she had to copyedit that best seller, she’d need to turn around “The Iraq Study Group Report” in only a few days.
But the most pressing issue facing Vintage all along, says Miller, was the question, “When are we going to get this report?” The publisher had needed to clear time with its printers, “so they could clear all their decks and print [exclusively] for us.”
The ISG set a deadline to have all copy to Miller by Friday, Dec. 1 and—much to Miller’s relief—it did just that. The report came in at about noon, but had its problems. “It was longer than we expected, there were more headers than we expected, there were some [extra] text boxes,” recalls Miller. “They had to re-jigger the design before sending the whole thing off to type-setting at about 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. that afternoon.”
The report came back at around 6:30 p.m. and a production team member took it home overnight to make minimal changes. By 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, the report was headed to its printers, where it was prepped and finally on press at 9 p.m. Miller says the first books began shipping at 6 a.m. Monday with 40,000 copies on their way to Vintage’s warehouse.
Aside from a few distribution issues caused by a UPS hiccup in the Washington area, “The Iraq Study Group Report’s” remarkable 24-day journey was complete. “The thing that surprised me most was how smoothly everything went,” Miller says. “[The project] required a great deal of effort and [there was] some anxiety, but it really did come off with surprisingly few hitches, mostly thanks to the amazingly capable people at the ISG, and our terrific production, publishing and salespeople. BB