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.