By Jeff Garrett, special for CoinWeek ……
The Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book) is one of the most iconic brands in all of numismatics. The book was first published by Whitman in 1946 and was written by R.S. Yeoman. More than 25,000,000 copies of the Red Book have been printed since the first edition made its debut, and this year marks an important milestone – its 75th anniversary.
Nearly all would agree that Whitman folders and the Red Book have been among the most important drivers for numismatics for many decades. Most numismatists, including myself, were introduced to the hobby by these two amazing products. Whitman folders and a Red Book are still must-haves for those who enter the hobby for the first time.
R.S. Yeoman worked on the Red Book until he retired as Editor in 1970. His assistant at the time, Ken Bressett, took over as Editor for almost the next 50 years. He retired in 2018 and handed the reins over to his long-time assistant, yours truly.
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My relationship with Ken dates back to 1974, the year I won a scholarship to attend the ANA Summer Seminar. Ken sponsored my scholarship that year and I took his class on United States Colonial coinage. I was only 16 at the time and had no idea that Ken would prove to be one of the most important numismatic mentors in my career. It would have been hard for me to imagine that I would later fill his shoes as Editor of the Red Book some 45 years later.
I began working on the Red Book around 15 years ago when my first numismatic book was published, 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. The books in Whitman’s “100 Greatest” series are focused on the amazing stories that make these coins great, but they also include prices. I also started to help with pricing for various other Whitman books as they were published.
My work on Red Book pricing focused on gold coinage for the first several years. United States gold is one of my core specialties, and working with the other contributors for this section was fairly easy. At the time I thought my work was just helping out, but it later proved to be my apprenticeship for what was to come.
After several years of working on Red Book pricing with Ken and his team, I was named as Red Book Valuation Editor in 2013; Q. David Bowers was named as Research Editor. Having my name moved to the cover of the Red Book was a huge honor and thrill, to say the least. It was also amazing to be listed with two of the greatest names in the history of the hobby – Ken Bressett and Dave Bowers.
Today, the Red Book is an amazing source of numismatic knowledge. It is the accumulation of decades of numismatic scholarship by brilliant writers and hundreds of contributors. Before the internet and the proliferation of specialty numismatic books, the Red Book was the go-to source for rare coin information. The Red Book has maintained its importance by staying relevant with accurate data that is useful to experts and beginners.
I have been asked many times about the process of producing the Red Book each year. Between the information required for Red Book and the massive Mega Red, it’s a huge job that requires a lot of teamwork.
The following is a brief description of what goes into publishing the hundreds of thousands of copies of the Red Book that are distributed each year.
Shortly after the Red Book deadline each year around January 15, the book is headed to the printers. The team almost immediately starts to accumulate updates and changes for the next edition. Many of the upcoming changes are because of space constraints. We may decide to include some information on a rotating basis to make room for new numismatic scholarship or articles in the introduction section of the Red Book. New information keeps the book fresh and helps buyers justify the cost of buying new editions every year.
Another big task is keeping track of mintage figures. The Red Book is considered by everyone as the go-to source for accurate mintages. The United States Mint provides information on current issues, but surprisingly, this can be a moving target that requires frequent updates and corrections. Serious numismatic scholars also sometimes turn up new information going through archival records that require a new examination of mintage figures that have been used for decades. Whitman Publishing is very careful about changing this type of information and a lot of research and discussion is conducted before making a decision.
There is also a nearly year-round search for new photographs to improve the books. The Red Book is now in color. The best photograph shows the details of the coin clearly and is, ideally, in the finest state of preservation. Deeply toned coins are avoided because they do not present well in the limited space at actual size. This is especially true for small denomination coinage. The new 75th edition of the Red Book has lots of new photos and the goal is to improve the quality of the book every year.
For me, pricing for the Red Book and Mega Red is the biggest task of the year. There are literally tens of thousands of prices listed in either book. This process starts around October and continues until the last minute when the book is sent to press.
My first task is to deconstruct the Red Book and Mega Red pricing into separate spreadsheets for each denomination and series. This is done from the final pricing files that have been sent to Whitman from the previous year. The files sent to Whitman for instance would be “Silver Dollars 1794 to date”. I need to break out early dollars, Liberty Seated dollars, trade dollars, Morgan and Peace dollars, and modern dollars into individual files for the contributors to work on. The work is tedious and takes several days for the entire book.
The next step is to email these files to our over 100 Red Book contributors. The contributor system for the Red Book is what makes it truly special. No other numismatic book has so many world-class experts working to provide accurate information. Contributors are recruited for their expertise in a series or special section of the book.
Most of the contributors are asked to work on the files for about 30 days in November. Each contributor is required to examine the file of their specialty and email it back before the December 1 deadline. They are required to highlight any changes in color so that I may quickly identify their suggestions. These files are printed out and used as I attack each section for final pricing.
A word about pricing is probably important. Rare coin pricing can sometimes be very difficult. No two coins are exactly alike, not even for those in the same grades. Rare coin prices realized quickly illustrate this fact. Contributors are asked to enter prices for the theoretically “average” coin.
Extraordinary coins that trade at auction are not the basis of most rare coin price guide valuations. The Red Book and Mega Red do list individually the auction records for selected rarities. These prices are the most relevant for super rarities and condition-census examples.
I generally start Red Book final pricing from the front of the book back. My focus is on the coins that contributors have suggested major changes to. Before updating into the new files, these are examined and doubled checked against recent auction records. It is also very helpful that I handle millions of dollars’ worth of coins each year myself and it is my business to know current market valuations for a wide range of issues.
When bullion prices change dramatically (such as they did last year), it’s a huge task to adjust all of the common issues in the Red Book to reflect current prices. There is no “easy button” for this, and every line of every spreadsheet is updated for accuracy.
Another complicated job is the many new issues produced by the U.S. Mint. These need new line entries, along with current retail pricing. The Mint strikes more new issues than most collectors realize, and the job of getting everything listed along with photos is a lot of work. The Whitman production team does an excellent job. The coverage of new issues is one of the reasons that the Red Book is a must-have every year.
I am also very proud of the “back of the book” issues that are featured in the Red Book. The Private and Territorial gold section is the standard reference for that very important series. Philippine coinage is also listed along with coins from Hawaii and other territories. There is even a section on collecting vintage Red Books and Blue Books.
One of the last steps in the Red Book production process is the “author query”. Senior Editor Diana Plattner will send me questions, section by section, about inconsistent prices, missing data, auction records, and other issues that have come up in the final editing. This continues until final press time. Occasionally, we discover something after the book has gone to press that also requires a last-minute change at the printers.
I assume by now that you can see it’s a somewhat stressful operation getting the book completed.
One of the most frequently asked questions about producing the Red Book is how do we decide to add new die varieties to the books. Adding new coins to the regular Red Book is a big decision that impacts how people collect coins. It also can have an impact on what coins are included in Whitman folders. When someone asks for a coin (usually a variety) to be included in the regular Red Book, I ask for an email making the case. I then share that information with Ken Bressett and David Bowers. I usually defer to the infinite wisdom of these two walking numismatic encyclopedias. More often, many suggestions end up in the Mega Red, which has more than triple the page count and therefore allows much more flexibility.
I have often been asked what new things can be expected in future editions of the Red Book. Since condition plays such a crucial role in pricing, I would like to see an expanded section for grading with illustrations for beginners. We’ve included similar sections in the Blue Book’s full-color chapter in recent years. Many new to the hobby are confused when they see giant prices for Gem coins. They do not understand that their worn coin is worth drastically less. Better coverage on this subject is on my wish list for future editions.
What makes the Red Book truly special to me is that brand-new collectors find it useful and that nearly all expert collectors and dealers have a copy on their desk. For 75 years the book has stayed relevant and essential. The job of creating the Red Book and Blue Book each year is truly a team effort. Along with our amazing expert contributors, the following Whitman staff go above and beyond each to make it happen:
Main Whitman associates who work on the Red Book:
- Mary Burleson, President
- Dennis Tucker, Publisher
- Diana Plattner, Senior Editor
- Matt Heller, Compositor (Typesetter)
- Matt Jeffirs, Designer
- Thinh Bui, Designer and Production Artist
- Sydney Cromwell, Senior Associate Editor
- Brandon Hall, Senior Associate Editor
- Janet Hatfield, Vice President, Production and Inventory
- Dawn Burbank, Senior Director, Sales
In our Pelham and Florence offices, we have some great people who assist with proofreading and various art production tasks, advertising design, warehouse management, etc.: Jeri Burke, Michelle Hudson, Montana Kitterman, Brad White, Tammy Lawrence.
The iconic Red Book is good hands with Whitman Publishing, and I’m sure that future editions will continue to be must-haves for everyone involved in the hobby for years to come.
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