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New Life for a 400-Year-Old Atlas by Gerardus Mercator--An Interview with the Publisher of the English-Language Edition

Lost until recently, Gerardus Mercator's legendary 16th-century Europe atlas is now published in English. Below is an Interview with the Publisher of the English-Language Edition.

The Mercator Atlas of Europe is an amazing and unusual book. Its publisher describes it as, "The Mercator Atlas of Europe: 17 facsimile prints from a long- lost 16th-century atlas by Mercator and a richly illustrated large format book, enclosed in a linen portfolio and laminated slipcase." But that's only part of the story. This elegant volume not only includes a facsimile of an atlas by famed 16-th century cartographer Gerardus Mercator (inventor of the Mercator Projection, which allowed sailors--for the first time--to plot a straight-line course on a map), but also contains several scholarly monographs, as well as numerous full-color ancient maps from Mercator, his sons, and many of his contemporaries. The maps representing the original atlas are presented as unbound, fold-out sheets, separated by country or region.

Shel Horowitz, editor of Global Arts Review and Global Travel Review, talked with Liz Oakley of Walking Tree Press, the book's American publisher.

SH: How did you learn of the atlas, and how did you get involved with this project?

LO: I'd been working for a publisher in the middle of the launch of a magazine about maps, globes, and charts called "Mercator's World." I was supposed to develop a book publishing division. In the fall of 1996 I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair, where I discovered this title. It had been published in French and Dutch by a Belgian art book publisher, Mercatorfonds Paribas, in 1994, upon the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Mercator's death. It was a perfect fit for the company I was working with,

But by the time I had negotiated acquiring the worldwide English language rights, my company had decided they needed to keep their focus on magazines. Thus, nearly a year ago, I made the decision to do the project myself.

SH: What's your background?

LO: I was an exchange student to Switzerland in high school, and two years later decided to see what "real German" sounded like. I went to Germany for six months--but stayed in Berlin for fifteen years. I worked and lived with a fascinating, outrageous, "anarchistic" artist-writer-adventurer named Jack Bilbo and his wife (met Picasso, Henry Miller, and assorted other folks--quite an experience for a 20-year-old from Illinois!) and, after his death, taught German and English for the US Air Force in Berlin, until 1980, when I decided to return to the U.S.

I'd been to the Pacific Northwest and liked it, so I started asking students of mine about nice places. Eugene, Oregon, was a university town, which appealed to me, and the Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon was a good one--at the time, I still thought I might go that route. I arrived, sight-unseen, in Eugene with 110 boxes, a container full of antique furniture and art, and a five-year-old daughter.

Most of the past 18 years since becoming re-patriated have been spent in publishing. I started Oakley Publishing Company with one magazine, "Programmer's Journal," which was the first magazine targeted for PC programmers. That was followed by "Windows Tech Journal," then (and still) the only magazine especially for Windows programmers, which has won more awards that any other computer programming magazine. I sold the company to two employees several years ago.

I was lured back into publishing when I was asked to do a feasibility study for another local magazine publisher, who was considering a magazine on books and book collecting. ("Biblio" was launched in 1996.) And they were also launching "Mercator's World."

Once they decided not to do the project and I took it on myself, I rather expected I could do the pre-press work (it was translated in England and printed in Spain) "on the side," keeping my magazine marketing position until at least the end of 1997, the original pub date. However, my position was eliminated two days after announcing my intentions (In all fairness, we have maintained a cordial relationship, and they have been exteremely generous in assisting me with marketing.)

I refinanced the house, sold Buck the Truck, and tightened my belt considerably. It's been ten months now with no income, and the investment so far has exceeded $115,000, so there are days when I wonder at the sanity of my decision!

Walking Tree Press negotiated world rights in English. (Mercatorfonds Paribas's usual US partner is Abrahms, but they declined to do it in 1994. My gain.) The maps were photographed when the atlas was still in possession of the British Rail Pension Fund, so the British Library [repository of the original manuscript] actually has nothing officially to do with either the original or English edition.

SH: Where did you find the many wonderful additional maps by other ancient cartographers?

LO: Those were all part of the original 1994 edition.

SH: Were the scholarly articles included in the original French/Dutch?

LO: Yes.

SH: How successful has the Belgian publisher been?

LO: They tell me that they did a total of 5,000 copies and have just a few of the French edition left, having sold nearly all of both languages in the Benelux countries (the only countries where I do not have rights to sell the English edition).

SH: From a publishing point of view, this is a rather complex project. You have a bound book, a number of unbound fold-out maps, ancient colors to reproduce accurately, a slipcase. Tell a bit about the technical challenges.

LO: Here, again, I had it infinitely easier than if we had started from scratch. We essentially re-printed a previously-published work, with modifications. Color fidelity and quality were essential to me, and there was quite a bit of work done there. The original map prints were done on a flat, rather porous stock. The resulting maps, while certainly "old" looking, looked muddy and washed out, and much detail seemed to have been lost. Also, the color wasn't consistent from map to map, i.e., many of them had a green tinge--I had looked at a lot of very old maps, but I had never seen one that aged green. So I selected a smoother paper, did a lot of long-distance color proofing, and also ran things past the map library at the British Library for color accuracy. I was very pleased with the stunning results of that effort.

We received first copies off the press via air freight in October, 1997. While the book and maps themselves were beautiful, the gold-embossed green linen portfolio was a disaster. The gold work looked like it had been created with a stencil and a can of gold spray paint--a shoddy imitation of the original title. My partner publisher in Belgium wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment and--at their expense--had all 3,000 portfolios remanufactured at the original bindery in Belgium and then air freighted to Oregon. It all took much longer than anticipated, though, and after receipt of the new portfolios, 3,000 books had to be removed from their individual mailing cartons, shrinkwrap removed, slipcase off, portfolio replaced, and then all put back together again! We finally had books in our warehouse at the beginning of February--three months late, with cashflow projections, marketing plans, and bank account balance asunder!

SH: How did you choose to work with a printer in Spain?

This was all arranged through the Belgian publisher, who wanted to maintain artistic and quality control. Subsequently, they have gained enough confidence in me and Walking Tree Press to allow us to have the film in order to reprint individual maps here. The positive film arrived from Spain without slipsheets and all stuck together in a gummy mess. Our Oregon printer (Dynagraphics in Portland, which does some of the best color work in the country) spent an entire weekend working the film with oil to separate the sheets before contacting it back to negatives. So far, we have only reprinted maps of Ireland, and they are even more beautiful than those in the book.

SH: This book has many facets: it's an art book, a geography lover's dream, a scholarly work that will appeal to researchers and collectors, and of course, a way to see these ancient maps without worrying about destroying 400-year-old fragile pages. How is it being received by all these various audiences? Have you encountered price resistance?

LO: Since we've only had copies since early February, I held off major promotions until I was sure we could send out product. We've advertised in "Mercator's World," of course, but also "Apollo," "Art & Antiques," and "Archaeology." We mailed a very beautiful 6x9 inch direct mail package containing color brochures that show the entire set in all its splendor two weeks ago, and many of them must have just arrived today because the orders have been coming in.

It's hard to tell about price resistance--we only hear from the folks who buy! And that feedback is positive. One buyer wrote the wry compliment, "Finally something that's better than I expected"! And others have told me it would be a bargain at twice the price. (I doubt that!) The high cost does certainly price some people out. Time will tell...

SH: How big was your print run? How many do you hope to sell?

LO: 3,000, and I hope to sell them all! (Good thing it's not dated material!) I have now secured the rights to reprint and sell the individual maps, as well, and I'll be marketing them to the incredibly large genealogy/family history market (using the headline, "Find your ancestral village.") Another interesting area is Mediterranean cruise ships. All it takes is money (which will also buy help) and time to do a mini-marketing plan for each map!

SH: In your mission statement, you say, "if a tree can decide to make a change and move in a new direction, we humans should certainly be able to do the same. Walking Tree Press publishes books that make a difference." I liked that a lot. How does a 400-year-old atlas fit in with changing the world?

LO: I never quite thought of it as a "mission statement, but I guess you're right. I don't think we talk of "changing the world." The key phrase is "books that make a difference, books that contribute to our knowledge of the world, books that are beautiful to look at and handle, and books that inspire us to move in new directions." Does this first title fulfill all of those? Probably not. But it certainly does a fine job with the first two -- and two out of three isn't bad! Let's see what the future brings...

SH: This is very ambitious for a first-time publisher. What do you expect to be working on next?

LO: Another good question. I recently saw a book with a title something like "I Can Do Anything I Want, If I Only Knew What That Was." My goal with this first book was to make enough money to allow Walking Tree Press to do something I "really want to do," something that *does* fulfill our mission statement. I'm flexible and open as to what that might be. At the moment "we" are very small--just me, really--and the tasks that need to be done for this title, as well as marketing opportunities for the individual maps, are immense and more than a little overwhelming. I'm torn between seeking the "what's next" and focusing on today's demands--because if I can't sell these books, there won't be any money with which to start anything else!

Next week I'll be meeting with an author and people at the Royal Geographical Society in London, the granddaddy of them all, to discuss doing a new edition of a book on antique maps that has gone through several versions, including ones by Phaidon and Christie's. This one would contain color images supplied by the RGS and would carry a title "The Royal Geographical Society Book of Antique Maps." Now this makes a lot of sense if I am "smart" and stay in the mappish niche. I have several other possible books on mapping and exploration. But I'm not altogether sure I want to do that. First things first.

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To order your copy of the Mercator Atlas of Europe, please click here to order from

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.

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