Go to Whole Earth Collection Index

How to do a Whole Earth Catalog

by Stewart Brand

From the Whole Earth Epilog, May 1974

Page layout, Whole Earth Catalog


For us this consisted of three big jobs. 1) Encouraging an incoming flow of information - spontaneous research by the readership. 2) Scanning the literature for promising stuff. 3) Sorting the good from the bad.

  1. The incentives we laid out for spontaneous suggestions were: reward of money ($10 for published review, later $ for any used suggestion); reward of recognition (we published the name of the reviewer and suggestor, spelled as correctly as possible); reward of honor-by-the-association (to the extent that we kept valid high standards, and honored the famous suggestor no more than the teenage one); reward of doing a good deed (to be a noble conduit we had to stay clean); reward of return (to the extent that we gave good, people returned it).

  2. The literature for us consisted of Publisher's Weekly, Forthcoming Books in Print (both from R.R. Bowker, source of all the basic cataloging information of books in the US. I consider R.R. Bowker a major pillar of Western Civilization; they labor endlessly, invaluable, without bias, and of course unheralded). Science (who lists all the books sent to them for review), Scientific American (the first national publication to notice us, by the way), Popular Science (for tools), and later our cooperative competition such as Mother Earth News, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Canadian Whole Earth Almanac, Natural Life Styles. Other major sources: catalogs from the publishers, bibliographies in good books (especially when annotated), big book stores, especially Kepler's friends' bookshelves, the Stanford and Menlo Park libraries, and our own bookshelves revisited.

    At the beginning of the Catalog I ordered copies of promising titles from the publishers at 40% discount on ABA's Single Copy Order Plan. After about a year, the MIT Press said we didn't really have to pay for review copies from them. After that we requested free review copies from all the publishers and usually got them, at least on new books. It took some self-policing to keep from requesting "review copies" that we just wanted to have. There are some built-in conflicts-of-interest in the reviewing business.

  3. Sorting. Fuller calls it "tuning out everything that's irrelevant", and considers it the core activity of thinking. It is utterly unglamorous; it is shoveling shit by the mountain load. I never spent my time reading the good stuff - whose quality was usually evident in 2-3 minutes. I spent the yellow-brown hours reading the lousy books, digging past their promising facades to the hollow within. Some of these wound up in the stove, where their publishers belonged.

    Sorting requires criteria for yes and no, and sets to sort within. By angelic good fortune I thought to spell out our criteria at the beginning on page one of the first Catalog. The sets (the section headings, devised originally as a secondary definition of our contents) also held up surprisingly well. Both the criteria and the sets became well-worn handles on the otherwise wholly unmanageable mass of information that flooded in. They also helped preserve continuity during three years of gradually migrating values.

    At the beginning of the Catalog I imagined us becoming primarily a research organization, with nifty projects everywhere, earnest folk climbing around on new dome designs, solar, generators, manure converts; comparing various sound systems, horse breeds, teaching methods... The only product-project we ever did was build a BD-4 airplane, and I felt guilty about that because of the big expense for low yield of information.

    In fact we didn't do enough research. Not the studious kind. Of our staff of about 26, only 2 or 3 were ever engaged in active search for Catalog material. It could have been much more and better, but it never got organized, probably because of prima donna failings on my part.


Usually I review a book before I read it. These are almost always shorter, pithier, more positive and useful reviews. You're approaching the book from the same perspective as the reader - unfamiliarity - and you're not apt to fall into imitation of the author's style or petty argument with his views, as critics do. So, I review the book, enthusiastically, on what I know from its title, its subject, the author, my own experience, and a hasty glance at the pages. Then I look a little more deeply to see if the review is fulfilled. If not, I either rewrite the review or discard the book.

The quickest clues to the authority of a book are its illustrations and its back pages. Cheap shit editor's-idea books puff up their illustrations. If a book has a whole page devoted to a photograph of nothing, with a nothing caption and a credit to some manufacturer for the photo, throw the book. Look for photographs that contain real information related to the text, and captions that multiply the use of the picture; or diagrams that deliver complex understandings simply. In the back of the book look at the bibliography. If it's absent, or inflated endlessly, or unannotated, or oddly limited, be suspicious. The bibliography is an easy way to compare the author's judgment with your own.

The Catalog format for reviews includes excerpts from the book (or magazine or catalog). The excerpts should expose the book - convey quickly what's in it, and deliver a few complete ideas independently useful to the reader. I always attempt to gut the book with the excerpts, extract its central value. Really good books like On Growth and Form, or Stick and Rudder, or The Natural Way to Draw will not be gutted; practically any line or picture in them can be used.

An ideal review gives the reader a quick idea of what the item is, what it's useful for, how it compares to others like it, and how competent the reviewer is to judge. (This last is why I stopped having unsigned reviews - the reader gradually grows familiar with the weaknesses and strengths of the various reviewers.)

The horrible temptation in reviews is to show off rather than simply introduce the item and the reader to each other and get out of the way.


The operational word on the cover of the Catalog is access. Ultimately that means giving the reader access from where he is to where he wants to be. Which takes work, work takes tools, tools need finding, and that's where we come in.

A good catalog is a quick-scan of tools, where one can find what you want easily, with detailed information where you're interested. Our attempt to fulfill these requirements led to use-based section headings (Shelter, Land Use, Communications, etc.), an alphabetic index, and page-theme layout.

On each page we try to have one graphic which "keys the page", tells with a glance what's there. The hardest thing we had to learn was providing simple clear demarcations between items - an unadorned line.

We publish considerable detailed information - fine print. Sorting among that is aided by a consistent code of type-faces (reviews are always "univers italic," access is always "teeny", Divine Right is always "bold teeny", and so forth). The IBM Selectric Composer makes this an easy matter. Still we're not as consistent as we should be. In discussing order of importance, our layout guidelines are:

Glamorous white space has no value in a catalog except as occasional eye rest. I figure the reader can close his eyes when he's tired.

I keep coming back to the reader/user because that's who the editor represents. I've had to feel that my obligations to Portola Institute, to staff, friends, relatives, and to myself are all secondary. So are my obligations to authors, suppliers, publishers, other editors. Usually there is no conflict, but when there is the editor has to see that the reader wins. The editor's main mechanical task is determining efficient use of production time and page space. It's like spreading hard butter on soft bread, best if you cut the task into workable hunks and distribute them evenly.

I use McBee cards, one for each item, for rough editing. I know from previous Catalogs and the new material approximately how many pages should be in the, say, Nomadics Section - 61 pp. So I take the stack of McBee cards punch coded for that section and break them down into categories - mountain stuff, car stuff, outdoor suppliers, survival books, etc. Then those sub piles are put in some sensible sequence. Then on a big table the cards are separated further into 61 little page stacks, by pairs (the reader sees 2 pages at a time, not one). The contents of those piles are written on my desk dummy. The cards are stacked in page sequence, and I've got a section rough edited.

There are two main work governors tacked to the wall - a calendar showing days of production and a page chart. If we have 8 weeks to do 448 pages, then we have to finish a signature of 64 pages every 6 working days, or about 11 pages a day. The signature finished points are marked on the calendar so I know exactly how far behind we are and when we'll have to start working nights to get copy to the printer on time.

The page chart is big, a couple square inches for each page. On each page I write the basic information for the three layout people. As they finish a pair of pages they mark them off on the chart and look for the next ready pair. From the chart they get the number and name of the pages, the titles of the items (and whether they're new or to be cut out of old flats), plus the appropriate piece of Divine Right, and any headings.

In our production the editor, typist, cameraman, and three layout men work together. The editor tries to stay a couple days ahead of layout in fine editing the pages, and the typist and cameraman a day ahead.

We use a tabloid-sized page, like the magazines in the Sunday papers. Steve Baer's Dome Cookbook was what convinced me it's a good format. You have enough space on each page and spread (facing pair of pages) to lay out a graphic array of information with multiple visual relationships and plenty of freedom for the reader to pick his own path. Also it's an economical size for printing on a web press. The two main disadvantages are that booksellers don't like the display space a tabloid book takes up, and some readers get tired holding the big page up.

When a layout guy has the copy all gathered he calls me over to see what the space situation is and determine what to leave out and what to retype or reshoot so it will fit. After he's finished I'm called over again for any revisions and to try to catch the mistakes while they're easy to correct. Two other proofreaders also try (while they're indexing) before the page is flatted and sent to the printers.

Just before the signature goes to press I get page proofs for a last chance at corrections before the karmic soup gels irretrievably.

Some publications make all their editorial decisions by continual discussion and consensus. I admire the ones who can make it work. I've gone the faster and possibly more limited route of strong central direction.

When we have a guest editor, every bit of the authority and most of the responsibility is his. Now that we're quitting, it's all yours.