Thursday 14 June 2007

How the Sibley Guide could have sold a few Million copies more

Whenever I talked about the Sibley Guides it had been more critical than appraising. So to set the record straight this time, it needs mentioning here that I am indeed rather fond of Sibley's work and owe him a great deal. The problem with the Sibley guide is that one tends to learn fast from it and thus soon discovers its limits and short-comings, of which there are few, but few is more than none.
So if I have been complaining somewhat, I was "complaining on a high level" as we say in German.

However, there might be others that have different reasons for complaint, as I found out in Canada in 2005:

On my first day at Point Pelee National Park in May 2005, I observed a somewhat strange-looking warbler that I wasn't able to identify. So the first thing I did was to check my Sibley Guide, but that lead to no satisfying results. Good thing I wasn't quite the only birder there at Point Pelee in the middle of May, and so I went to the Information Centre to tell my tale and see if they could help me with my mystery warbler.
Their first question was basically what kind of guide I was using and I told them I had the "Small Eastern Sibley".
To my great surprise, at this they cringed.

Apparently, these people weren't great fans of the Sibley guide, and I couldn't help but wonder why. And so I searched and researched and searched again.
It took me a long, long time but I eventually found out a few days ago that the reason for these - and other - international tensions had nothing to do with David Sibley and his work after all, but with the map depicted in the back of his small Eastern field guide.

If you were Canadian, you'd probably wonder why it was necessary to use the abbreviation "AB" for British Columbia and "BC" for Alberta but still think it was a funny mix-up.
As soon as you'd notice that the map does not contain Nunavut yet, although the guide is from 2003 and this youngest of Canada's territories was established in April 1999, you would think it a bit odd but not take offense just yet.
But after seeing that both Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia were not treated like the other provinces, territories or states (abbreviations in bold) but just like small islands, bays or other landscape structures (PEI even in smaller letters than other islands), you'd surely start to think that whoever worked on the map wasn't too fond of Canada and you might consider grabbing a copy of the National Geographic Guide instead.

Having become more skeptical, I checked the rest of the map carefully.

The map shows the Bermuda Islands, right, and they are attributed to the United Kingdom.
So far so good.
But then, to the south of Newfoundland, the map depicts two small islands. There is no mentioning on the map however regarding their name or nationality.
Oh, oh!
They are actually called St. Pierre et Miquelon and are part of France. So the British got their Bermudas but the author of the map declines the same right to the French although both islands are clearly depicted on the map?
Not good, especially with the French who do tend to be very fond of their country. Maybe that's why I never met any French birders in North America (apart from Laurent who's been here many years): you don't want to go where you'd have to buy a bird guide you don't want to buy.

Then there's Greenland, and the name Greenland is printed in the same layout as countries, like USA, Canada, Iceland or Mexico.
Well, even though Greenland has reached a very high degree of sovereignty, it technically still is a self-governed Danish territory, and there is no mentioning of Denmark anywhere on the map. Even though the roughly 60.000 people living on Greenland surely won't mind too much, the rest of Denmark's population of 5,447,084 (as of January 1st, 2007) might not be very amused at all, which in turn might not help to increase the sales of the small Sibley Guide in that country as well.

And there's something else: a small speck of land right on the other side of the Bering Strait. As there's no name attributed to it on the map, it must surely be part of Alaska, right?
Well, of course not, this is the very far east of Russia which possibly could have been mentioned on a decent map, or not?
Maybe Putin is a birder and current tensions aren't about rockets after all? How many copies of Sibley's guide were sold in Russia?
You see?

So let's summarize the number of potentially offended people who might have refrained from buying a copy of the "Small Eastern" Sibley guide due to the map's inaccuracies:

France: 64,000,000
Canada: 31,000,000
Denmark: 5,500,000
Russia: 143,000,000
Total: 243,500,000

A few more than a few, or not?
Actually, this is roughly equal to the population of the US of A (300 Million), so the Sibley guide could have basically sold the same amount of copies abroad as within the USA if it wasn't for that map in the back of the book.
That's a surprising strategy of the publishers, especially as the map in the original Sibley's Guide is okay...

Poor David Sibley, his truly excellent guide surely deserved better than that!


Anonymous said...

I own the second print of the 2003 edition (december 2005), and it looks like the mistakes you described has been corrected. Well note quite. Only the mistakes about Canada. Other mistakes are still there, inclusing the french island (I need to get there one day, to start my "french territory list"), Greenland and Russia



Jochen said...

Bonjour Laurent,
I was pretty sure the mistakes had been corrected in other editions and after all, none of it is a serious "mistake", just these little inaccuracies that are fun to find and point out, so this post was very much tongue-in-cheek!
If I were you, I#d start my French territory list at Reunion and not St. Pierre et Miquelon.

Anonymous said...

Those are all excellent points, Jochen, but despite your vast erudition, you betray a certain ignorance of the American mindset. We (well, not me exactly) of the United States don't worry much about what the rest of the world's citizens think and expect you to buy our products anyway. Though I don't know the man or his publishers, it's entirely possible Sibley did these things out of spite. Anyway, there's no such thing as bad publicity, so you may have just helped him close that sales gap!

Well-written and insightful as always.

Larry said...

I've found lots of little things to complain about in the Sibley Guide.-No guide seems to be perfect-that is why I definitely like to have other guides hanging around just in case.
-recently someone pointed out that an immature Pine Grosbeak can have a patch of red on the head according to Kaufmann's book-Sibley did not mention this-occasionally run in to these types of things.

Rurality said...

Hey Jochen, you should start in on the weather map people next! Hubby and I always laugh that all weather seems to stop completely at the US/Candian border. Well according to tv news forecasts anyway.

Jochen said...

Hi Mike,
as a German I am aware of that, or else I presume you'd build your cars differently (oh, I just had to write this!!) And apart from that one map, Sibley's guides are good enough to be promoted...

Hi Larry,
yes, no guide is perfect and when I was at university and didn't know what to do with all my spare time (oh lucky days) I always wanted to build my own comprehensive field guide, by cutting and pasting (or today: scanning and word processing) the best parts of each field guide and bird identification magazine together. Well, this will have to wait until later then, retirement maybe?

Hi Rurality!
Well, isn't that really the case? I am sure Canada must get a completely different weather, what with all those Canadians living in Igloos and stuff!?
If I lived in an Igloo just across the border from Michigan, I'd frankly make sure, too none of that sticky warm weather crossed my border! Imagine the damage this would do to the Canadian real estate market!