Editorial Insights: The Book of Sake

by Barry Lancet

SWET asked Barry Lancet of Kodansha International, to recall the experience of working with Philip Harper on The Book of Sake, featured in the SWET Newsletter article here. His account offers an insider’s insights on how a book is born and reared and a glimpse of the hard work as well as enjoyment involved.

The Book of Sake (2006) was born before its predecessor, The Insider’s Guide to Sake (1998), rolled off the presses. Even as we put the finishing touches on The Insider’s Guide (a pocketbook we hoped people would throw in their briefcase or bag when they went shopping or drinking), Philip and I began talking about a second book that would be larger in size and scope. There was so much more to say, but at the time we knew the audience wasn’t out there yet.

But times did change. We watched from Japan as sake began to garner more attention in the United States, Kodansha International’s main market. Then, starting around 2003, sake’s popularity surged. Fueled in part by the renewed interest in Japanese cuisine, sake jumped from its precious perch in sushi bars and other Japanese eateries to the wine lists of non-Japanese restaurants and the shelves of supermarkets and liquor stores.

The time had come. Drinkers had grown more sophisticated. In America, early adopters (to borrow the tech phrase) now bandied about terms like ginjō and nigori, yet we knew many readers would be coming to the subject for the first time. The second book had to take into account at least two distinct groups of drinkers: those who liked Japanese plonk (a non-tech word) because it was great fun to drink and those who approached sake as they did fine wine or good food. (There’s a third group—those who will throw any alcoholic beverage down their gullets, a group I find myself a temporary member of each year around bonenkai season, but that’s another story.) The first group would be satisfied with the basics, while the second would demand a deeper understanding of the subject from the outset.

We were at an editorial crossroads. Which group should Philip write for? What subjects should we cover?

There was one editorial premise on which Philip and I agreed: drinking sake was an enjoyable experience, so the book should, somehow, reflect that. In other words, no matter what, The Book of Sake, while informative, should also be fun. That was our bottom line: respectable, educational, and entertaining.

With one firm decision made it was but a small leap to conclude we could provide what both groups would require. And who was to say that some from the first group would not graduate to the second? Or some of the second would not succumb to the charms of sake, and once they knew their ginjō from their nigori  simply kick back and enjoy the stuff? If we kept it educational and entertaining at the same time, many readers would probably find themselves effortlessly moving from one group to the other.

So that is what we did. Beginning with four chapters—enjoying sake, types of sake, regions of sake, and brewing sake—Philip jumped in with an authoritative voice that comes with long years in the field (fifteen and counting; just what an editor wants). A wry sense of humor surfaces in his writing at times, often with a subtle tongue-in-cheek, which, considering the subject and our “policy of fun,” I encouraged rather than suppressed.

Off we went. Within each chapter, we took a modular approach. Short, focused sections deal with the topic at hand. And those sections have subsections. This allows the reader to crack the book open and dive in anywhere. In other words, you could read the book from cover to cover or you could cherry-pick depending on your mood or needs.

The first chapter, “Making the Most of Sake,” tackles sake and food; finding the sweet spot for each sake (do you drink it warm or cold?); sake tasting by the pros; how to throw a sake-tasting party of your own; drinker’s paraphernalia (for those not brown-bagging it); and sake labels. Each of these offer a quick, discrete read. Sidebars such as Sake Buzzwords and Sake Brewer’s Blues dot the landscape for additional entertainment, as do colored tasting charts, which allow readers to visually gauge sake as wine lovers gauge their grappa with pie-shaped flavor charts. Both offer two new levels on which the book can work. Fun stuff and good brain food to boot. But note this: none of the editorial or design devices lend themselves to the dumbing-down or lowest-common-denominator approach that has gained a following of late. Far from it.

Last, let me answer the question everyone is dying to ask: Did I do research for the book? Yes, as much as I could. Any conscientious editor must. Fortunately, sake brewing has improved tremendously in recent years. And there is more good news: as the quality has risen the incidence of hangovers has dropped. The new breed of sake goes down easier and is easier on the system. And that remains one of the major ironies of the sake world. Even as techniques improve, sake is suffering from a lag in popularity at home. Luckily, overseas drinkers are starting to pick up the slack.

One final note. The Book of Sake is a new KI publication and should not be confused with a pocketbook edition of the same name published in 1996 but now out of print. The 1996 edition was a paperback version of Sake: A Drinker’s Guide (1984), which is dated and also out of print; it has the distinction of being not only a good read but the first book in English on the subject. A Drinker’s Guide was edited by another SWET stalwart, Peter Goodman, a fact that leads the discerning researcher to a single, unavoidable conclusion: either SWET or KI can lead one to drink—all in the name of editing.

From Newsletter No. 113 (December 2006)

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