Writing A Local History Book (Part 1)

The story of how a handful of locals came to earn contracts with Arcadia Publishing Co. to produce local history books about the mid-Peninsula.

Big-name historians may churn out 800 or 900 pages to say everything that needs saying about a subject in a scholarly history book.

But for authors of the popular and ubiquitous Arcadia Publishing Co. local history books, the challenge is quite different. Working within a standardized format, authors must tell a succinct story with a set number of images and word count limit.

It’s like assembling a picture puzzle — and writing a haiku for each puzzle piece.

Although authors have to learn to work within these constraints, the Arcadia formula allows the company to publish hundreds of titles every year, creating an affordable type of history book that just about anyone can enjoy.

"I’ve heard people describe our books as 'gateway books' into local history," said Arcadia publisher Jeff Ruetsche. "That is, folks who might never consider buying or reading a history book on any subject will pick up an Arcadia title."

"This nostalgic little book about their hometown actually piques their interest; they want more, so they decide to delve into some more of the 'serious' stuff," Ruetsche added. "I think that’s pretty cool."

Founded in 1993, the South Carolina-based publisher has been an independent company since 2004, and has carved out a unique niche in the world of history books.

Arcadia’s sepia-colored covers present an iconic and nostalgic image of the subject, whether it's a city like Pacifica — which has merited two Arcadia books, one of which was written by Bill Drake, owner of the Pacifica Tribune from 1959 until 1989, and Chris Hunter, former editor and publisher of the weekly newspaper, along with members of the Pacifica Historical Society — or Half Moon Bay, which is a collection of vintage images assembled by local history experts Kathleen Manning and Jerry Crow, also of the Pacifica Historical Society.

"We publish hundreds of titles every year across all 50 states," Ruetsche explained. "I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the way our publishing program is designed – relatively small print-runs on titles with highly localized interests."

Arcadia Publishing Co. relies on local authors and historians to write the books, and the typical press run is about 1,500 copies. Authors must include 180 to 240 vintage images, and there are word count constraints per caption, per page and for the entire book.

Once a contract is signed, writers receive a layout that specifies where to place text and images — so chapters start on a right-hand page, for example, and double-page photographs spread across side-by-side pages. 

Sometimes Arcadia editors approach a historical society to propose doing a book, since these groups have access to the images and people knowledgeable about the subject and can generate funds for their organization through book sales. 

Would-be authors may also pitch an idea, as aerospace engineer Bob Dougherty did, when he proposed a book on La Honda that became part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series.

"There never was a history of La Honda that I could find when I was living there, so I decided I was going to write one myself," Dougherty explained. 

Later, Dougherty and then-Arcadia editor John Poultney teamed up to convince the Woodside History Committee to collaborate on a book about the town.

In my case, I co-authored two books on Redwood City — Redwood City, andRedwood City Then & Now — with my husband, Reg McGovern, and friends Nicholas and Betty Veronico, who had also written a book on San Carlos.

Nick, who is a well-known aviation historian, also wrote Moffett Field and Shipyards in World War II for Arcadia, and Betty went solo when she wrote about Bay Area lighthouses.

The Write Stuff

In deciding whether to proceed, Ruetsche said finding the right author is key. Ideally, it is someone who is a recognized authority on a subject — or who will work with one — and is also able to assemble the large number of photographs, maps, posters, artwork and other images that "tell" a story in the Arcadia format. 

If the author is able to help promote and market the book, such as through festivals, media interviews or doing book-signings at events, so much the better.

For our two Redwood City books, the abundant supply of high-quality photographs available to us was a double-edged sword. The Veronicos and I could pick and choose among a vast collection of photographs by Reg, who started taking pictures in 1937 and had a long career as a newspaper photographer on the San Francisco Peninsula.  

The hard part was leaving pictures "on the cutting-room floor."

In assembling material for his La Honda book, Dougherty gathered most of the photographs from families who had lived in the area for generations. To motivate them, he offered to provide a copy of the book to every family in the La Honda Elementary School if he got enough photographs to complete the book. (And he was as good as his word.)

In contrast, when Dougherty teamed up with architect Thalia Lubin and the history committee for the Woodside book, he thought it would be "a piece of cake," since materials were available through the Woodside Community Museum and there would be more people to help with the work. 

But since the History Committee is an official body of town government in Woodside, and an entire committee was involved, getting the work done actually took longer and was more complicated than working alone — Dougherty and Lubin ended up doing most of the work, but the committee insisted they take top author billing on the cover.

Even authors with access to a large body of images find themselves networking, on the hunt for the photos they don’t have.  A subject can’t really be covered in an Arcadia Publishing Co. book unless there’s a picture, a map, a brochure or some other image to illustrate it.

Lubin had heard about radio personality Hap Harper landing his airplane on Interstate 280 when it opened, and securing a photograph would be a way to talk about that momentous event. That photo, courtesy of Jan Harper, appears on page 111 of the Woodside book.

"There were a bunch of things we knew about, and we just had to track down a photo," Lubin said.

On the other hand, a horse graveyard that she had seen on the former Jackling property didn’t make its way into the book because the authors could not locate a photograph of it.

Although Arcadia Publishing Co. books may present an overview of a big subject, that adds to the challenge for an author, who can’t get by with merely a superficial knowledge.

"The one thing about Arcadia books is that there are 240 pictures you can have," said Nick Veronico, who is at work on his 29th book, for various publishers, "but you have to be an expert on all 240 subjects."

"It’s not like Ford Mustangs, where all you have to know about is that one car," he continued. "You have to know about all 240 subjects, and the people in all the pictures, and how they came about."  

Read the rest of the story of how these local history books came about tomorrow, when we publish Part 2.


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Deb Wong January 15, 2013 at 03:05 PM
I know what goes into the process of compiling these books, after completeing the Arcadia book on Moss Beach that June Morrall was writing. I had to go out & re-interview many of the subjects, in addition to our taking all of the current photographs for the book, and then wrote the eplilogue. Not as easy as it sounds!


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