Jack Joyce—A tour through the world of map editing (EAC-BC meeting)

I first started corresponding with Jack Joyce, founder and president of International Travel Maps and Books (ITMB Publishing) roughly a year ago when I was planning the PubPro 2013 unconference. I was inviting everyone who did any kind of publishing in B.C. to come share their wisdom about publication production. Joyce wrote back, “I’m not sure how valuable my participation would be, given that our production techniques, pre-press work, printing, and marketing differ so significantly from the needs of book publishers.” He added, “We use cartographers instead of project managers, senior cartographers instead of editors, and pre-press graphics specialists instead of pre-press print specialists. As maps are completely graphic and worked on by a dozen staff, there are no authors per se, although we credit the senior cartographers on the map when published. Even the eventual printing has to be done differently than for books.”

His response only made me want to learn more about editing and production in cartography, and we invited him to speak at our January EAC-BC meeting, where Joyce regaled us with eye-opening stories about ITMB’s rich history and the surprising state of mapping today.

History of ITMB

Joyce was raised in Toronto and educated as a town and regional planner at the University of Western Ontario. He moved to Vancouver in 1980, where he managed the Information Canada outlet, run by Renouf Books. Customers came in looking for maps of other Canadian cities. At the time, the retailer carried only maps of Vancouver and B.C. Joyce did four days of searching to track down a map of Ottawa that a customer was looking for. After that he forged relationships with suppliers, and his Hastings storefront became known as a place—really, the only place—people could get maps.

Everything was going fine, said Joyce, until someone came in looking for a map of Los Angeles. He contacted Rand McNally and began distributing that company’s maps of U.S. destinations. Then a customer came in looking for a map of London.

In response, Joyce contacted fifteen European countries asking them who was distributing their maps in North America. No one was, as it turns out, and Joyce became the North American distributor for fourteen of them. “We didn’t hear back from Switzerland,” Joyce quipped.

Recognizing a market niche, Joyce took six weeks off to visit Japan, South Korea, and China. At the time, in 1982, he was one of the first foreigners in China. After a two-hour meeting in Beijing he had secured a contract to do worldwide marketing of all maps of China, an arrangement that lasted until Tiananmen Square happened in 1989.

For South America, however, he “ran out of options.” Maps were basically impossible to find. So he teamed up with Australian cartographer Kevin Healey to form ITMB and began publishing original maps. “Kevin spent five years doing artwork by hand,” said Joyce. “He would attach typeset place names with beeswax. We worked that way until the early 1990s.”

In the 1980s, almost nothing had been published for any of South America; some governments, including Peru and Uruguay, hadn’t even done their own mapping. On one of the only available maps of Brazil, there was an island depicted at the mouth of the Amazon that Healey couldn’t find on any of the regional maps. That map, Joyce explained had been based on an aerial photograph that the Americans had taken in 1947, and the “island” was actually a cloud. This mistake persisted in maps for more than thirty years. “It’s not that unusual,” said Joyce. Even Google, as recently as 2012, showed an island in the South Pacific that doesn’t exist. “It was another cloud,” said Joyce.

Maps of various regions in Latin America became ITMB’s forte, but they also produced travel maps to other destinations all over the world. The maps of Europe at the time, explained Joyce, were all road maps. “None of the maps published showed railway lines.” Yet travellers to Europe usually explored the continent with a rail pass. So ITMB became the only firm that produced a map of Europe showing the rail lines.

Healey died in 1994. By that time Joyce had developed a relationship with the government of Vietnam’s mapping office, where he met his wife Lan, who worked as a cartographer and printer. Lan arrived in Canada in 1996 and took over cartographic production at ITMB, standardizing map design, and increasing the firm’s list from forty titles to 140 titles. Today, ITMB has over 490 titles in print and is the largest publisher of travel maps in the world.

State of mapping today

“Why are we still doing maps when everything is mapped electronically?” Joyce  said. As it turns out, the world is not nearly as well mapped as we believe. “Even Google will admit it’s only halfway through mapping the world.”

Around the time of the American invasion of Iraq, National Geographic had planed to do a feature on the historic treasures of Baghdad. Only shortly before they were scheduled to go to press did they realize that they didn’t have a map of Baghdad. Iraq was a very dangerous place to be sending in a map researcher, of course, but Joyce had a big and reliable enough team of researchers around the area that ITMB had managed to produce a good map of Baghdad. ITMB was the only firm in the world with artwork for Baghdad, and National Geographic called them for help, eventually printing 9 million copies of that map worldwide.

More recently, after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, ITMB was on call with various aid organizations providing maps of the country. Even the U.S. State Department didn’t have its own maps and had to turn to ITMB for help. (Sure enough, as of this writing, if you look up Haiti in Google Maps and zoom in, you can see roads they’ve drawn in by tracing the satellite photo, but, except for the main highway, almost none of them are named.)

There are still huge parts of the world that you can’t get maps for, particularly in Africa, where most of the governments don’t have mapping offices and aren’t concerned about mapping. ITMB has been working with a Scottish firm that has been developing a digital database of Africa, using its artwork and refining it for travel maps. Joyce and his colleagues prepared the first ever travel map of Northwest Africa. “And this was a week ago!” he said. “Don’t leave home without a map,” Joyce advised. Many countries don’t have the infrastructure to distribute maps. In some places, you can’t get a map locally.

Cartography can be a sensitive political issue; a lot of mapping is taken on by governments, and the government of one country is reluctant to map another country, because doing so implies that it has the right to map the other country. As a result, some maps look as though “the world drops off at the end of the country.” ITMB doesn’t take that attitude, said Joyce, and it pieces together information from different sources to produce maps that travellers would find useful, even for not-so-remote locations. For example, say you want to take a trip down the Pacific coast of the United States. There are plenty of road maps out there that can take you down the I-5, but if you wanted to visit McMinnville to see Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose or detour to Mount Hood, you’d be hard-pressed to find a map that had all of that information. ITMB, of course, has published just such a map.

The mapping process has certainly changed dramatically since Joyce started in this business. “In my lifetime, maps have moved from being done by hand, to being done by hand with typesetting, to scribing tools, to giant computers, to desktop computers,” said Joyce. The preferred software used to be Freehand, but Adobe purchased it and discontinued it. Now cartographers mostly use Illustrator. The iPad has really benefited mapping, because it lets the cartographer get georeferencing information in real time. She could be driving down a road in Israel and see where she appears on her map. If the map is off position, she can easily shift the road directly on the iPad to reflect where she actually is. Still, said Joyce, “A computer is only a machine. It’s only as good as the operator. You have to put in talent—a lot of artistic talent.” It’s not that hard to make a map that is technically accurate but looks boring, he said.

Editorial concerns in mapping

Curating information

When ITMB began, the firm relied heavily on atlases, travel guides (like Lonely Planet), any existing maps, and a huge team of researchers. Today Joyce and his colleagues still do this for some of the more remote parts of the world, but the information for a lot of places can be found in digital databases. “There’s almost a wealth of data. Our job is to take information out.” He had wanted to make a travel map of Australia, he explained, and he used a digital database to place a little airplane icon wherever there was an airport. “The whole map turned black,” he said—because many of the country’s ranchers and farmers have their own airstrips. To whittle down the number of airports on his map, he had to filter the database results, keeping only those airports with scheduled service, and the number of airplane icons dropped from thousands to twenty-six.


Once a cartographer has completed a map, it’s important to have another pair of eyes look over it. “Cartography is like every other type of editorial work,” said Joyce. Just as a person who’s written a book will have blind spots, “If you stare at the text long enough, it looks good.” Better yet is to take the map to (or back to) the travel destination and try to find errors—a process Joyce calls “ground truthing.” “A cartographer doesn’t have to have gone to Costa Rica to make a good map. But it helps,” he said. For some new maps of remote destinations, ITMB may do a small initial print run, essentially “buying five thousand researchers.” The early buyers of these maps will report back to the company—”This road is paved,” “This road is a kilometre over,” and so on. For a place like Ghana, Jack said, “You’re lucky if you can get the place name on the right side of the river and the names spelled at all reasonably,” adding, “You do your best.”

Spelling can be tricky in countries where the Latin alphabet isn’t the primary writing system. A week before his talk, Joyce and his wife were in Israel, heading toward Elat, Israel. Road signs leading up to Elat said “Elat” or “Ilat” or “Eilat.” Within Elat, most signs said “Elat,” except for one that said “Ilot.” The road signs there are in Hebrew, Arabic, then the Latin alphabet, and in many places the Latin spelling hadn’t been standardized. And the capital of Mongolia is variously spelled Ulan Bator, Ulaan Baatar, Ulaanbattar, etc. What is the correct spelling? “They don’t care!” said Joyce. Only China has imposed the Latin transliteration of its place names; other countries with non-Latin writing systems aren’t as concerned. To make sure users can find what they’re looking for, ITMB publishes the maps with the three most common variations—but there are times the cartographers can’t find any kind of consistency.

Editorial discretion

Maps done by a geological survey, said Joyce, can be used in a court of law. “My travel maps? No. Don’t try to fight a battle with them,” he said. If a road on a travel map were to scale, it would be a hundred kilometres wide—but for travellers, the roads are important to highlight. Another example is Fiji, which appears as a labelled cluster of dots on every world map; in reality, Fiji would be too small to see at that scale. Europe, too, is often depicted as bigger than it is, because otherwise it would be impossible to fit all of the information onto the map. ITMB’s business is travel maps, so its cartographers will exercise this kind of editorial discretion to give travellers the information they need.


Joyce has noticed that sometimes after ITMB has done the legwork and published a map, other maps that look suspiciously similar will appear. But “Copyright is not something that’s so easy to defend, I’m afraid,” he said. Basically the artwork on the copy would have to be identical, down to the contours and typefaces. Even then, the legal fees involved in prosecuting copyright infringement would be prohibitive. “We don’t get mad—we get even,” Joyce said. “They published a map? We’ll publish a better map.” ITMB has built a reputation as the world’s premier travel map publisher, and the business is on good terms with travel publishers, many of whose guides feature ITMB maps. One factor in Joyce’s favour is that there’s not a whole lot of competition in cartography “because it’s so much damn work!” he said. It took them seven years to map Peru, he explained.


“Do we make money? Yes, overall, we do. But how much demand is there for Tonga, Malawi, and Antarctica?” Their primary motivation, explained Joyce, is not to make money; they love what they do, and “we do it because it has to be done. If we don’t do it, nobody will.”

2 thoughts on “Jack Joyce—A tour through the world of map editing (EAC-BC meeting)”

  1. Thank you for a lovely article. There are minor errors, such as the company that did not reply to my initial query (it was in Switzerland, not France) and Tongo should be Tonga (near the end of the article) but essentially this article accurately reflects my views. It is very well-written. Congratulations.

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