Winter Prey — Behind the Scenes

The Mistake

This book is a fan favorite, and might have the best review from Publishers Weekly [1], one of the most important book reviewer publications in the United States [2].
It's also one of the author's personal favorites (click here to read his thoughts on it). It was really the first book where everything worked from the get-go. No major revisions, no huge editing hiccups, a title that absolutely everyone agreed on from the first page. Everything worked.
None of that matters, because of The Mistake.
Sherlock Holmes has Irene Adler, who he respects enough such that he only refers to her as The Woman. Similarly, this is The Mistake. An error so large that it looms like a giant looming thing [3] over any triumphs the book might have.
Compounding it is the fact that it's a small mistake — literally just a single digit in a number — but it's on the first page of the book, and it makes the author look like an idiot. It might not even be his fault — I don't know for sure — but it's still probably the single worst mistake in any of the books. Or at least the most obvious.
In the opening scene, the bad guy, the Iceman, is on a snowmobile driving across a frozen lake. It's late night, and visibility is poor. He's driving almost entirely by his compass and familiarity with the area. Due west across the lake, 370 degrees on the compass.
There are, of course, only 360 degrees on a compass. Due west is 270 degrees. A simple mistake: someone put in a 3 where a 2 should have been. Maybe it was the author's fault, or perhaps it was someone at the publishing end of things [4]. Either way, the error was right there, front and center, on the very first page of the book. 370 degrees. Due west.
But a lot of fans were so convinced that the author didn't know that there are only 360 degrees on a compass that I received a lot of fan mail about it. Mail deriding the author's intelligence, or questioning his experience in the real world. And since this was before email became as ubiquitous as it is today, most of these complaints were hand-written, on regular paper, sent via the United States Postal Service. That's about as hardcore as you can get without actually stalking an author in real life [5].
So the author called his editor, and complained. And while it was too late to get it for the hardcover — that was already out, remember — they had plenty of time to get it for the paperback. They'd change the 370 degrees thing, Neil said [6].
So it was changed.
But it was not fixed.
When the paperback came out, right there, on the first page, the Iceman is on his snowmobile driving blind across a frozen lake, going by his compass reading. Due west. 37 degrees.
Rather than actually correct the mistake and change 370 to 270, they just lopped off the 0. And while 37 degrees is at least a real direction, it's still wrong. It's a bit more north of northeast, so it's pretty damn wrong [7].
This error was never corrected for subsequent paperbacks — it costs a lot of money to make new printing plates for books [8], and it's simply not cost-effective to replace it until the printing press wear out. Not for a single-letter typo, anyway. So they let it slide. And slide. And slide.
When the book was remastered and reissued with the all-new introduction by the author, the error was finally, finally corrected. The new paperbacks have the Iceman heading due west, 270 degrees, and all is well again.
The original book came out in 1993. The corrected paperbacks weren't released until 2009. That's sixteen years to correct a tiny, simple, stupid error, that just happened to be on the first page of what many fans believe to be the best of the Prey books.
And that's all I have to say about that [9].

Mister Blue

One of the few things that changed during the writing of the book was the moniker used for the bad guy. In the earliest drafts, he was The Teacher, so called because he was teaching the various kids in the sex ring his own special brand of education. That was creepy, but he also wasn't the ringleader, so it didn't really fit. If he had been the leader of the sex ring, then yeah, maybe it would have stayed.
The next iteration of the character was Mister Blue, so called because his blue eyes were the only thing visible under his ski mask in the first chapter. That one was around for a long time, right up until the end. In fact, the first paperback version of Silent Prey had a teaser for Winter Prey in it, and he was still called Mister Blue in that teaser [10].
Eventually the author changed it to The Iceman and that was the one that stuck. The change doesn't affect the story, but it's relevant to what happened for the UK release.

Naming the Book

This book was always destined to be called Winter Prey. It took place during winter. A winter deliberately engineered by the author to be as nasty as possible, both really snowy and really cold [11]. The winter wasn't just an environment; it was a character. The name was set almost the moment the author thought of the plot, and there was no way it would ever be something different.
Unless you're in the United Kingdom, that is [12].
The Prey books never really took off in the UK the way a lot of other series by American authors did, and nobody really knows why. Maybe it's the way the rights have been passed from publisher to publisher [13]. Maybe it's the delay between the US publication and the UK publication, even though there aren't real translation issues. Maybe it's some kind of legal thing involving the Berne convention. Or maybe it's that there's someone insane working for the publisher who is actively sabotaging things.
Seriously, when you've got a series that has strong branding, you've got to be either evil or malicious to change it without a damn good reason [14]. And yet, when Winter Prey came out in the UK, it was titled The Iceman. Not a bad name in and of itself, but wrong nevertheless. And, again, there was no reason for them to do so. The four previous books all had been released in the UK with the Prey title intact. They were just then reissuing them all with snazzy new covers and good production values [15]. Why change the title? Why change it to something that has nothing to do with the other titles in the series? Why, why why?
I have no good answers for that. I have no answers at all. It's just another inexplicable thing that happened. Maybe it really was malicious intent, and the author has a nemesis [16]. That at least would give things a reason. As it is, it's just... there.

The Wendigo

While the author was working on Silent Prey, he was already thinking ahead to this book. The sex ring plot wasn't there, or the fires, or the winter. He wanted to have something during the winter, sure, and out in the wilderness near Lucas's cabin. But what?
One idea that popped out was a group of near-feral kids — teens and pre-teens — living off the land, surviving by scavenging off farms and homesteads. Runaways and other lost types, they were always at the fringes of society. Not many people knew they were out there, but when they finally (accidentally, perhaps) kill someone, the police start chasing them.
Combine that with the legend of the Wendigo — a monster, formerly human, that's known for cannibalism [17] — and you have the kernel for a strange, haunting story. More something Stephen King would write than John Sandford. Children of the Corn, but in the snow.
But the author rejected this plot fairly early as being too improbable, too crazy. Sure, he had psychos in the books, but at least they followed the rules of society [18], and were sort of normal in their work-a-day lives. These kids would be something completely different, and not something that would fit well into a Prey book.
Some elements still carried over: that the sex ring had a lot of kids involved became a key point. Their hideout in a disused barn was used by John Mail in Mind Prey. And even though it's been more than twenty years since the author abandoned this idea, I don't think he ever fully gave up on the core concept: there's something I find oddly familiar about the situation in Gathering Prey, something that reminds me of this long-ago plotline...


1. "A compelling vitality suffuses this novel, arguably the finest in a sterling quintet." Yeah, that's pretty good [19].

2. The other two are Kirkus and Booklist. Technically, the New York Times Review of Books is important as well, but not so much for the review as for the NYT Bestseller List.

3. This joke is brazenly stolen from Blackadder the Second, in which the eponymous character says that "Death and disease stalk the land like... two large stalking things." [20]

4. I really should know, but I don't. Some of the floppy discs used for the early books are unreadable, and the software he used at the time isn't in wide use now. The only digital version I have for some of these earlier works were lifted from a Russian software piracy site, which leads to its own difficulties. So whether this was a typo by the author or a mistake put in by someone at Putnam is an open question, and I don't know any way it can be resolved [21].

5. I have to strongly discourage stalking the author in real life [22]. If you have a complaint, you can write it in to me, and I'll probably get around to answering it sooner or later. If you're so angry that you want to physically attack him, just write a hate-filled email that I can ignore, and stay home. It saves everyone time and energy.

6. The author's editor is named Neil Nyren, and he is one of the finest editors in the business. The author was lucky to get him as an editor. He's the kind of editor that a number of other authors could learn a lot from [23].

7. If you take the original impossible heading and translate it into a real direction, it ends up being 10 degrees off true north. Still wrong, but less wrong than 37. It's just a mess.

8. The printing plates are metal, and cost a lot of money to make (relatively speaking). And each plate isn't for a single page, but for a whole group of pages, usually sixteen. So you'd have to scrap an entire printing plate for a single typo on one page out of sixteen. It's not as simple as pressing a few buttons on a computer [24].

9. And that's a lie, because I actually have one additional anecdote. See, the books were, at one time, collected into three-in-one editions. The second of those contained books four, five, and six. That meant that this one was in there, and they actually got the compass heading right. But they also someone managed to start the book in the middle of a sentence, completely cutting the first half of the first paragraph. So while the compass heading was right for this one version, they actually managed to add an error that made the book wrong from before the beginning. Wow.

10. I still get email about this, even though the paperback of Silent Prey with that particular Winter Prey teaser are more than twenty years old [25].

11. A small note about winters for people who have never lived through them (or at least through great-plains winters): they can be snowy, and they can be cold, but you almost never get snowy and cold at the same time. If the temperature is really cold outside, most of the snow will have already precipitated out of the atmosphere. You tend to get the most snow when it's just below freezing. What you have to watch out for is when you get a huge amount of snow, and then the deep cold hits right after it.

12. Or Ireland, Australia, or New >Zealand. They all get the UK editions. Hong Kong also got them back then, as >it was still a British holding. I think that South Africa also gets the UK editions for the English-speaking population, but I also know that they have Afrikaans editions.

13. They were first held by Grafton, which was folded into HarperCollins, which sold the rights to Headline [26], who eventually sold the rights to Simon & Schuster. Until recently, no one company had the rights to print all of the books. It was divided up between a bunch of them.

14. This is not true. Hanlon's Razor states that you should "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." I seem to be doing exactly that in my random speculations.

15. I'm not being sarcastic. The reissued HarperCollins paperbacks are still amongst my favorite covers for any versions of the John Sandford novels.

16. Perhaps James Patterson is more nefarious than anyone ever realized.

17. I am horribly underselling the relevance and anthropological underpinnings of the Wendigo myth. It's well worth reading about, and leaves one with the unsettling feeling that whatever monsters are out there, it's always people who are worse.

18. Except for the part about killing people, I mean.

19. Although the best one ever is probably the Kirkus review of Certain Prey: "After ten thrillers in his series about Minneapolis cop Lucas Davenport, Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist John Camp, writing under his Sandford pen name, hits a home run over the curve of the earth as the brilliantly swift Certain Prey sinks a meat hook under the reader's jaw on page one and never lets up." That's a pretty good review too [27].

20. An awful lot of my humor came from Monty Python and a whole host of late-70s and early-80s British half-hour sitcoms on PBS. A surprisingly large number of people find it strange and off-putting.

21. This is not quite true. I don't have the discs anymore, but I suppose it's possible that someone has them, and could read them. And while the original printed-out manuscript version was destroyed long ago, I guess it's possible that another copy might have been overlooked, and is sitting at the bottom of a box in a disused corner of the attic of the old Minnesota house [28].

22. Also, don't stalk me in real life either. It's happened twice, and I honestly don't think I'm interesting enough to warrant it.

23. I won't name any names, even though I certainly could. My opinions regarding certain highly-paid authors and their editing skills (or lack thereof) are only that: my opinions. Also, I don't want to get sued.

24. Although in this day and age, we're pretty close. It's probably as simple as pressing a few buttons on a computer and spending a lot of money to make it happen. As always, the money part is a substantial stumbling block.

25. The majority of postal-delivered mail goes to the Publisher, and they forward it to the author once a year or so. But I haven't seen any such shipments for a while now, and I'm starting to wonder if the day of postal-delivered fan mail is well and truly dead.

26. Headline was, at the time, mostly notable for pornographic novels. The Prey series didn't fit in to their catalog quite so neatly.

27. I've lived in California for more than a decade, but I can't shake certain Minnesota speech patterns. One of them is "Pretty good." It sounds like it's just barely good enough, but in Minnesota "pretty good" is high praise. Just below it is "not too bad", which translates to "excellent" in most of the rest of the US.

28. But probably not.