I have written this article as a summary of how I established myself in the fossil publishing business because it might be of interest to a general readership. First, a little background about myself is in order. I have had a life-long interest in natural history, especially entomology and arachnology. After completing a BSc in Zoology (1994) I gained a PhD in fossils preserved in amber (1999). I did a one-and-a-half-year stint in a curatorial role at a university museum, followed by four and a half years of funded post-doctoral research. Following a short period of unemployment, I was offered a short-term post-doc in the USA. However, prior to taking up this position, I realised that there was much more to life than worrying about journal impact factors and where my next grant might come from. I also found some of the politics of academia particularly disagreeable and so decided to ‘give up’ science, although this was easier said than done.
I disposed of all my worldly possessions, apart from (strangely enough) my amber books, research papers and my laptop, then moved to West Africa, where I found myself with a lot of free time. I kept myself busy wandering around the forests, photographing animals (mainly spiders and insects) and plants, in addition to recording field observations and collecting ecological data (I found it difficult not to do science). I also wrote a book on the topic I had been researching for more than a decade: Dominican Amber Spiders – a comparative palaeontological-neontological approach to identification, faunistics, ecology and biogeography (Penney, 2008) – I’d had an ambition of writing a book on spiders since the age of around 16.
I contacted a number of literary agents to try and get my book published. They all considered it too specific, so I tried a number of academic presses directly. One major university press sent it out to reviewers and it got excellent feedback recommending publication. Nonetheless, they decided it would not make enough profit for them, so they rejected it. That left two options: vanity publishing or setting myself up as a publisher and doing it myself. I opted for the latter and named my publishing business after my daughter Siri, who had been born several months earlier. At that point, I did not have significant publishing aspirations. The books were stored at my mother’s house and I sent instructions for distribution from Africa, which she very kindly did for me. Things changed in February of 2009. I found myself back in the UK and unable to return to the African country in which I had been living for the past few years. Literally, I had the shirt on my back, my 13-month-old daughter and my laptop, on which I had a couple of field guides to West African fauna and flora in preparation.
When time allowed, I completed these works and initiated several more, including an edited volume on the Biodiversity of Fossils in Amber from the Major World Deposits (Penney, 2010). I was very lucky in that leading researchers around the globe agreed to contribute to this project, despite it being published by a new and independent publisher.
Similarly, I conceived a number of ideas for several other volumes (including a hardback monograph series) that required contributions from colleagues I knew personally. I had to do a bit of arm-bending to get what I needed, but eventually all these projects came together nicely and resulted in published volumes. I am extremely grateful for this early cooperation, because it helped me establish a publishing presence, which I needed to attract other authors, who I did not know personally. The early monographs include: Volume 1: Fossil Spiders: the evolutionary history of a mega-diverse order (Penney and Selden, 2011); Volume 2: Fossil Arachnids (Dunlop and Penney, 2012); and Volume 3: Fossil Insects of the Purbeck Limestone Group of Southern England: palaeoentomology from the dawn of the Cretaceous (Coram and Jepson, 2012).
The aim of the monograph series is to publish relatively short print runs (about 200 to 500 copies) of semi/specialized topics aimed at forming basic reference works for academics, while also being accessible to the educated layperson. Such volumes also provide an excellent opportunity for early stage researchers, who would benefit immensely by having a published volume on their CV, particularly in the current highly competitive academic environment. Additional palaeontology volumes in the Monograph Series include: Volume 6: Fossil Seahorses and Other Biota from the Tunjice Konservat-Lagerstätte, Slovenia (Žalohar and Hitij, 2014); Volume 7: British Polacanthid Dinosaurs (Blows, 2015); and Volume 8: Ichthyosaurs from the Early Jurassic of Britain (Wheedon and Chapman, in preparation).
In addition to the monographs, there are volumes which are more general in their scope, including family friendly guides to specific localities. These include: Fossils of the Whitby Coast – a photographic guide (Lomax, 2011); Solving the Mystery of the First Animals on Land – the fossils of Blackberry Hill (Gass, 2015); and our latest title, A Guide to Fossil Collecting in England and Wales (Snowball and Chapman, 2017, which was reviewed in Issue 49 of Deposits), with several others currently in preparation.
I am now at the stage where I no longer need to contact researchers offering to publish their work (although I still do this occasionally). Rather, I get contacted by authors asking me if I would be interested in publishing their work. I have now published almost 40 volumes, with an emphasis mainly on palaeontology (but also entomology and other areas of Natural History) and have enough works in the pipeline to keep a steady output; and I have no doubt that I will receive more offers of work to keep up this momentum. Most of the authors are well-respected academics at high profile institutions from around the globe. Indeed, I have had contributing authors from the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Austria, The Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Canada, USA, Australia, South Africa, Madagascar and the Lebanon.
Our logo, which appears on titles from 2012 onwards, incorporates a line drawing of a fossil insect wing belonging to the lacewing species Sympherobius siriae (Neuroptera: Hemerobiidae) in Eocene Baltic amber, which I described in 2010 and is also named after my daughter. This paper was co-authored with my colleague Dr James E Jepson, an expert on Neuroptera and fossil insects preserved in rock. Subsequently, we collaborated on a book project: Fossil Insects – an introduction to palaeoentomology (Penney and Jepson, 2014) in which his expertise on rock preservation was combined with mine on amber preservation and this volume included the first significant palaeo-artistic representations (by Richard Bizley – see The artistic reconstruction of palaeoenvironments: a unique fusion of science and art in Issue 33 of Deposits) of fossil habitats from the major geological periods to focus on the insect elements of the palaeoecosystems.
Additional volumes about fossils preserved in amber (in addition to those already mentioned) include: Fossils in Amber – remarkable snapshots of prehistoric life (Penney and Green, 2011); Amber Palaeobiology – research trends and perspectives for the 21st century (Penney, 2016); and Inclusions in Baltic Amber (Gröhn, in preparation).
Of course, a palaeontology publishing catalogue could not be complete without a volume or two on that most enigmatic group of fossil arthropods, the trilobites. To date, we have two finished volumes: Trilobites of the World – an atlas of 1000 photographs (Lawrence and Stammers, 2014); Ordovician Trilobites of Southern Ontario, Canada and the Surrounding Region (Isotalo, 2015), and several more in preparation, including British Trilobites (Kennedy and Stammers, in preparation).
Since the outset, two of my prime objectives have been to help bring recent academic advances in palaeontology ‘to the masses’ and hopefully to inspire future generations of palaeontologists. I am very pleased to have published three books in particular, which will help achieve the second goal. These are: Dinosaurs of the British Isles (Lomax, 2014); So you want to be a Palaeontologist? – practical advice for fossil enthusiasts of all ages (Penney, 2016); A Guide to Fossil Collecting in England and Wales (Snowball and Chapman, 2017). A snippet from a review of the dinosaur book, published in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association (2014), demonstrates success in achieving both the goals: referred to above
“…a truly encyclopaedic coverage of all British dinosaur species. It is absolutely up to date on the taxomony of the material, with all the new names recently introduced for British ornithischians included. Search as I might, I found no omissions. This is a thorough, scholarly work presented in a format accessible to everyone. Every dinosaur worker in the world should have a copy.”
Of course, it was also based on this book that the author and frequent contributor to Deposits, Dean Lomax, ended up co-presenting the popular two-part TV documentary, Dinosaur Britain.
Publishing books has not been an easy field in which to generate a presence. There is a considerable amount of what I call ‘publishing snobbery’. Some academics turn their nose up at the idea of publishing with a small independent, rather than with a mainstream academic publisher. However, I do wonder about the justification for this. The prime concern of mainstream publishers is making profit. Unfortunately, this can result in lower quality production, for example, as a result of using print-on-demand publishing. In addition, a high profile name does not always equate to accurate or up-to-date content, or even good editing for consistency and style. (I have reviewed many academic works from such publishers over the last few years and some have been diabolical.) In some cases with larger publishers, it can take several years from submission of files to publication of the final work. I pride myself in a quick turnaround and in maintaining a high quality, in terms of both content and production. That my authors are happy with progress and the final product is very important to me. Also, it is just as easy to purchase a Siri Scientific Press book from anywhere in the world, with the click of a single button, as it is for a book from a more established publisher. Indeed, the quality of Siri Scientific Press titles is reflected in the excellent reviews they receive, in addition to correspondence I receive from the authors. Some examples include:
“Siri Scientific Press (SSP) has quickly made a name for itself in producing high-quality scientific books and monographs that deal with natural history. Admitted, SSP has a niche product, but one that they excel at producing.” Prof Thomas Hegna, Western Illinois University, USA [academic reviewer].
“It is one of the most interesting pieces of writing I have ever seen in any academic book, not just a paleontological one; it’s a little out-there at times, but stick around for the last paragraph — that’s where it all comes together.” Prof Mike Meyer, Bucknell University, USA [academic reviewer].
“Editing of Biodiversity of Fossils in Amber was one of the best ideas in last decade.” Christel Hoffeins, Germany [Secretary of the Amber Council, Germany].
“Your layouts are beautiful! The photographs look even sharper and with more colour than they appear on my laptop. I am extremely happy with your results and with the reaction others have when they see the book. I can’t thank you enough for providing an avenue for getting out important books that otherwise may not have materialized.” Kenneth Chris]Gass, USA.
My publishing ethos also differs from that of the mainstream publishers. I am happy to produce titles that I think are interesting, even if they are unlikely to make a profit. I rely on titles that do well to offset the losses from those that do not do so well and, apart from taking a meagre living allowance, all profits are channelled back into producing new titles. In addition, I consider the personal approach very important and help to support SSP authors with their own palaeontology related activities whenever I can.
Despite the small nature of Siri Scientific Press relative to the larger publishers, SSP regularly sponsors scientific meetings. In recent years, the following palaeontology conferences have been supported: Progressive Palaeontology (UK 2013, 2016), Palaeontological Association Annual Meeting (Switzerland 2013, UK 2014, 2015, France 2016), the 4th International Palaeontological Congress (Argentina 2014) and the 7th International Conference on Fossil Insects, Arthropods and Amber (UK 2016). I also attend some of these events with a trade stand.
While developing Siri Scientific Press, I have maintained an academic presence as an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Manchester. Although I do not get a salary, I have enjoyed total academic freedom as a result of not being tied to specific grants. In addition to my more general research output, I have been able to collaborate in multidisciplinary cutting-edge research using the latest techniques, such as X-ray computed tomography and next generation DNA sequencing, discussed at length in the Amber Palaeobiology book (Penney, 2016). My academic presence is significant enough that I still get invited to give keynote lectures at conferences, and last year I was awarded a higher doctorate (DSc) based on my 23 years of research output, so I must be doing something right.
In summary, I am very happy with my current arrangement, but, given that I do absolutely everything in connection with the publishing business (other than running the print presses), as this continues to grow, my time available for my own research activities is dwindling. When I look back at when I was in full-time academia and my grant was coming to an end, I recall wondering to myself what else it might be possible for me to do to make a living. I was convinced that all I knew about was fossil spiders and, as a result of this, would not be able to do anything else. However, I did have transferable skills that I had picked up along the way, even if I was unaware of them. I have been able to put these to good use, but it has been a steep learning curve. There is something to be said about the security of a regular salary at the end of each month. However, there is also a great deal of satisfaction in building up something from scratch and in knowing that people all over the world derive enjoyment from what I am doing and that so many important academic libraries hold copies of my books.
I am very happy with the way SSP is progressing and it would be remiss of me not to mention that I would be happy to hear from any potential new authors, who may be looking for aspecialist palaeontological publisher (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). You can find out more information about any of the above titles, in addition to new titles in preparation and read independent reviews, using the Siri Scientific Press website (www.siriscientificpress.co.uk).