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The Pages of History Writ Small

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, George Gibson should feel plenty flattered. The 52-year-old head of small, independent publisher Walker & Co. has been a pioneer of a now-ubiquitous book genre -- stories about forgotten people or offbeat things that changed the world. In 1995, Walker published Dava Sobel's Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. The company went on to publish Mark Kurlansky's Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997), Sobel's Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (2000) and Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (2000).

Today, go in any bookstore, and you'll see dozens of similar volumes, from Simon Garfield's Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World (Norton, 2001) to Inga Saffron's Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World's Most Coveted Delicacy (Broadway, 2002) and Les Standiford's The Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Building of the Railroad That Crossed the Ocean (Crown, 2002).

New York City-based Walker, founded in 1959, publishes around 50 titles a year and estimates its annual sales in the $7 million-to-$8 million range. That's down dramatically from the 200 or so it used to publish, including fiction and children's books. But when the book superstores came in and consumer sales rose dramatically, Walker found its business model couldn't compete as well. In addition to books on history and science, Walker also publishes health books, quirky works such as The Procrastinator's Handbook, and is branching out a bit into memoirs and hisorical travel.

BusinessWeek Books Editor Hardy Green recently spoke with Gibson about the genre he has helped pioneer. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Do you agree that these historical volumes have emerged as a distinct and successful genre?

A: I don't think so. Each of the books that we've published stands on its own. Longitude just fell into our laps. I had read a magazine article by Dava Sobel on longitude, and I called her up and said she should expand it into a book. I specified that the book should be short and that she should think of it as a biography of an inanimate object.

Some call these books "microhistories." I really don't define them as anything. For me they are slices of history that open a window onto a wider world. Also, by dealing with a narrow topic very completely, they can illuminate portions of much larger books. They have the capability of generating "ah-has" from readers, who feel that suddenly they understand something much better than they had before.

Q: I have noticed that, very often, the word "story" appears in the subtitles of such books. Why is that?

A: It's way of saying this is not analysis, not journalism. It's human drama, a good narrative, something that will grip you. Fiction has made a big comeback this fall, but one thing these slices of history have made clear is that true stories are every bit as captivating as fiction. As the saying goes: "You can't make this stuff up."

Q: It seems important that such books not just be about things, but that they have a central, human figure.

A: Yes. They open up the human stories that are treated much more briefly in bigger survey histories. Longitude is a good example: The problem of longitude had been described in any number of earlier books, so it's not as if this story had no currency out there. What was missing was the human drama behind invention and the creation of something revolutionary.

Q: So, are you now flooded with proposals -- authors wanting to write the definitive account of how a little-remembered person discovered mud?

A: We get a lot of proposals. The ones that are good often sell for prices way beyond what I can now afford. Or they may not be all that good -- we get a number that don't work at all. Some may be focused on a tiny subject. The burden is that you have to have a great writer who knows how to tell a story and who is absolutely passionate about the subject.

Q: Do readers approach these books differently than they do, say, the latest 900-page biography?

A: Yes and no. People buy them for themselves first. They get to read them quicker, then give them as presents. They're easy to give -- they're not as expensive as bigger works and not as burdensome. I would venture to say that, today, a good percentage of these books that are 300 or more pages are never read -- or only read in part. Buyers want to read them but don't get to them.

Until a year or so ago, I didn't have the feeling that bulk had interrupted the sale of particular books -- but now I do. People are not buying certain books because they are 500 pages long. We've published only three or four 500-page books. I'm glad that one book we're particularly excited about this season, Measuring America by Andro Linklater, is 300 pages. Now, when I consider a lengthy book on American history, I say to the author, "Try to rethink this as a shorter book."

Q: If, as you say, you aren't able to offer large book advances, are there other compensations for your authors?

A: We think of ourselves as an author's publisher. I just love authors and enjoy every part of the process. We like to involve authors in the process -- jacket designs, catalog copy, and page designs. Too often you hear authors say: "I turned in the manuscript to the publisher, and now I never hear anything from them." But it's possible to get an author involved without a lot of effort on the part of the publisher. Very often, they make it better, and this gives them a sense of ownership, diminishing the mystery of the publishing business.

Here are some of Walker Books' microhistories, followed by similar books from other publishers.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

Brunelleschi's Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel

Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston

Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy by Andro Linklater

Michaelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King (coming in January)

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia by Anna Reid

A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon

The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers by Tom Standage

Microhistories by other publishers:

Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World's Most Coveted Delicacy by Inga Saffron (Broadway)

The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer by Doron Swade (Viking)

Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood (Knopf)

The Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Building of the Railroad That Crossed the Ocean by Les Standiford (Crown)

The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made by Bruce Watson (Viking)

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins)

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield (Norton)

The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World by Ken Alder (Free Press)

The Northern Lights: The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis by Lucy Jago (Knopf)

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins)

Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Ecco Press)

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