Publishing your own 'field guide'

This is a mix between a question and a ‘fun idea’.
Can just anyone make a field guide? I think it would be really fun to create a fieldguide for smaller families or tribes to publish! The idea of making a book, in general, is super fun to imagine. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

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Do you mean a guide on the iNaturalist platform, or a physical book? Either way there are ways to do this.

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Yes anyone is able to make one, and if you self-publish, then getting a publisher to accept it isn’t a hurdle either. However, there are lots of considerations to think through. What is the taxonomic scope of your guide? The geographic scope? Will it be a comprehensive text (ie treat all known species within your scope), or just offer the more common taxa? Who is your target audience? etc etc

Also very important are things like photographs vs illustrations (and whether these will be yours or if you’ll source them from elsewhere), and whether you’ll include keys or not.

Two of the most crucial questions in my mind are 1) Is there a ‘need’ for your field guide? and 2) How will you make people want to buy it?

If this is something you’re working on for enjoyment/as a personal project, then those 2 questions aren’t so relevant, and you can go for whatever you’ll get the most enjoyment out of. But if you’re viewing this as a more serious project, you need to think about making your guide stand out from the crowd. God knows how many bird field guides are out there, endless variations on the same theme. The best ones distinguish themselves from the rank and file.

I published a seashell field guide a couple of years ago. It took me around 4 years all up from start to end. There were plenty of periods where I didn’t work on it at all for a few months in that time, but it was still quite a time-consuming process. I collected every single specimen featured in there, took all the photos (tens of thousands of images, then selected down to a few thousand), made all the plates. One of my close mates is great with visual design, so she helped me out with the layout and font and greatly improved the look of it.

I also went to a lot of effort of ensuring the IDs were as accurate as possible (contacting experts, getting IDs from iNat), and I still ended up making 2-3 ID errors, so now I’m working on a second edition to amend those and add 25+ new species I’ve found since.

I marketed it in four ways. First was that it was a comprehensive guide to my beach of focus, i.e., I featured literally every single species that I had found on that beach at the time of writing. So immediately for anyone using the guide for said beach, they know that if they find something, chances are it will be in the guide and thus it will be useful for them.

Second was to nonetheless highlight the book’s broader applicability. Whilst I still would have written it if it was only usable for that one beach, as I really enjoyed writing it, I still wanted to sell as many copies as I could, and my scope was very niche. So I made sure that the blurb, intro, etc., emphasised that 95% of the species featured in the book can be found along the entire state coastline, and probably 80+% of them the whole of southeastern Australia. So even if you never visit that beach, it’s still useful.

Third was highlighting to potential buyers the fact that the last popular printed seashell field guide for Australia was from more than 20 years ago! So my book not only provided a guide to IDs, but it is also useful for providing updated taxonomy, with many of the names having changed since the previous book(s).

Finally, one way I made my book stand out was through the inclusion of many non-exemplar specimens. Pretty much 100% of seashell field guides provide images or illustrations of perfect, exemplar specimens. These look nice, but the reality is that your average beachcomber will find broken, discoloured shells or fragments on the beach, and a photo of something in mint condition won’t always be helpful for IDing these. So I have many photographs of broken specimens and small fragments, which no other guide has.

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This is brilliance.

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Wow!! Thank you for such a detailed and in depth reply, i saw your books before and cannot wait to grab a copy myself next paycheck.

I think its a mix between passion project and ‘these insects are pretty niche and id like to talk about them/draw them’ i think a mix between photgraphy and illustration would be brilliant!

Im just a young enthusiastic who just hit their 20s, and i think this is something id like to do. Your insight and in depth reply fortified my passion to do this, i appreciate it.

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Both, but this post was mainly for a physical guide!

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Money. Money is an important consideration. How much will the various options cost? Where will the money come from? What will the selling price be, and it is reasonable to expect people to pay that much?

For example, if we do a second edition of our field guide to grasses of Oregon and Washington, getting top-of-the-line full-color printing will result in the cost for editing and printing being about $18,000. (We’ll make enough in sales for each of us to have a nice dinner out once a year. Ha.) A reduction in photo quality would reduce the price and result in an attractive, useful book. Identification keys are difficult to format in a field guide, so leaving one out would reduce the editing cost, but we consider it essential for the grasses, which look so much alike. We cover 343 species in 460 pages; covering only the common or “important” species would reduce costs. Guides to smaller groups may cost less to print.

Would a publisher pay for this? Maybe. Depends on the publisher and whether they think your book will sell enough to cover costs. Worth a try. Publishers have to be hard-nosed about what projects to accept, so expect multiple rejections. Your potential publisher might be much more interested if you can bring in some funding to start with.

Where could you find funds? I was surprised how many charitable foundations specifically state that they don’t fund books, but a few may. If people working for government agencies feel your book would be useful to them, they may be able to find some funds. In the U.S., the Forest Service, BLM, EPA, and Corps of Engineers could be sources. State agencies may help, if they can. Talk to individuals in the organization about who might be able to help – not everyone has their hands on funds. Organizations like native plant societies might kick in some money. A group with particular interests (botanical society, wetland consultants, etc.) may publish your book, especially if it’s small and/or of high value to them. It may be necessary to arrange a little funding from each of several sources, but that’s not bad. You may find that one organization is more willing to provide funds if somebody else cares enough about the project to contribute some.

For selling, go to meetings of organizations with people interested in the topic. Give classes. (Charge for the classes!)

Getting a field guide written and published is a frustrating process that will take much longer than you expect, but when you finally hold the book, pamphlet, booklet, or whatever, it will be worth it.

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Thank you for providing so many options and considerations! Im quite the beginner so im wondering- is self publishing not an option for something like this? Or is it an even more painstaking route.

And what makes the project so expensive specifically, if i may ask, to result in $18k? Again, i have no expierence in these things and ask only in curiousity! Is it equipment, labour of others, materials, publication?

Self publish and print on demand - is also an option.

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But don’t confuse that with the vanity press. If your “publisher” is asking for large sums from you up front, DON’T DO IT! These so-called publishers make their profit off charging fees to the authors, so they aren’t too concerned about whether the book sells.

I am still trying to explain such things to one of my clients. I talked him out of the vanity press, but he doesn’t quite grasp the print-on-demand concept.

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Self publishing is indeed an option. I don’t know much about it. We published through a university press.

Why was the book so expensive? Mostly, because it’s all color and the press we worked with prefers to use the highest quality color printing, which is still done in Asia. Expensive printing on heavy paper with high clay content (to keep the printing sharp), and they you have to ship the books here.

Also, long dichotomous keys are difficult for the press to edit. The leads have to keep being adjusted to the right margins (because the pages are small and if you don’t do this, the leads get ridiculously narrow on later pages). Small adjustments have to be made on many of the lines to keep everything neat. (Not a cost consideration if you’re publishing your own book, but always a time consideration.)

I’m sure the work could be done more cheaply, but we do like the quality of their work.

We just pay for our own time, photographic equipment, and computer programs ourselves, because this is the kind of thing we love to do. We have received agency funds to help with our time and cost on certain projects, particularly our field guide to Carex sedges.

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We don’t consider the university press we work with to be a vanity press. They do publish some things without the authors providing any funds. However, our field guides cost them more than their usual budget per book, and we authors agree with the press that keeping the price low for purchasers is important.

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Print on demand is a greener option than having to pulp remaindered books - with all the printing and disposal costs added up.

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I mean, pretty much anyone can publish anything as a book as long as they can get it published. Now if you want to publish a paper, that’s different. Your credentials don’t necessarily matter, but the process is FAR more bureacratic, expensive and difficult to accomplish.

FWIW I’ve seen what look like self-published papers placed by an author onto ResearchGate.

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The process to get your holotype and any other paratypes catalogued in a museum collection and go through all the proper steps of naming the species in question and getting your paper accepted, etc. is a real nightmare. This is true no matter who you publish through. You technically can just keep the holotype yourself, but that’s frowned upon. The naming process is always the same and ICZN gives the DMV a run for their money.

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I am creating one for our place, 50ish acres. I am just documenting everything photographically and IDing it and putting it in there once I am confident of the ID (either by my own alone, or hitting RG through community ID here on iNat for taxa I am less familiar with). 6 organisms to a standard 8.5x11 page. I have it broken out into larger taxonomic groups (sort-of…for example, possum is in with mammals so it’s not lonely, or I have a general “herps”); and organised within how MY brain works (which may be similar regardless of taxonomy together, or may be taxonomic, depending on which section and what we are talking about!). I have scientific name, common name, the general description of where I found it (sometimes when, like when in bloom or what time of night and year for fireflies, etc), and if lookalikes, the key ID features to tell apart but otherwise very sparse on ‘how’ to ID it.

My partner jokes it is going to become The Guide for the area some day, I say I am not doing near enough info in it to make it a helpful ID guide as I have certainly written it for myself in mind and no other audience. Maybe it will help someone in the future know what existed in the past, or who knows maybe someone will take interest, but that is not my own personal goal or intent (I wouldn’t be upset if it did, but it’s not the purpose).

It’s already almost 200 pages so it may end up being ‘volumes’ when I go to print. When will I print? Who knows. When I feel like I have found what there is to find I suppose…

I usually use Mixbook for printing my caving journal, books about trips we have taken, etc (all photography-heavy things with writing interspersed) so I just planned to use that.

It has taken 100s of hours already, maybe even 1000s if you count photo processing, uploading to iNat, following observations, running down keys myself, sorting the files, getting them into InDesign, page layout, moving things around as I find more of that “thing” to add…and I’m just doing it for myself! I would expect a lot more effort if the intent was a Proper Field Guide because I would want to put in citations and all sorts of stuff then.

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Money is an issue, always and as you say professional publishers have to be hard nosed about what they take on. However, these days there is the print on demand option available for books that are inevitably a bit niche in their appeal and the image quality can be really rather good.

Shameless plug now for my own lockdown writing project:
https://1001species.ca

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@blue-lotus – Yes. The process of getting a new species described and published does involve some tricky bits. At least it’s easier now that a description in Latin is no longer required. My colleagues and I prefer to use a previously published paper, the recent description of some related species, as a template so we don’t forget something and make the publication invalid.

Please, never keep the holotype or isotypes yourself. Even if you manage to keep these specimen during your lifetime, your heirs are too likely to toss them out. Deposit them in a museum or university herbarium (or other relevant collection). Hopefully your type collection includes duplicates (isotypes) which you can send to additional institutions. (This is not only polite, but also insurance in case of fire, bombing, or other problem at the first institution.) For plants, find a good place using the website Index Herbariorum.

Many species are unnamed, including an estimated 4% of North American plants, so you may find one or more, probably when not looking for it. However, describe new species cautiously and after careful study – your own study, not just grabbing anybody else’s work. Rabid splitters have already made a mess of cactus, Australian snakes, and orchids. You don’t want your legacy to be something like that.

Then it becomes a question of how likely are those 4% to be in localities one can get to. A plant far back in a National Forest Wilderness Area, ten miles from the nearest trail? Or a plant in that spot at the edge of town where people illegally dump their rubbish?