Thursday, 23 November 2017

A bit of market research

It is nearly 50 years since the second edition of 'Flies of the British Isles' by Charles Colyer and Cyril Hammond. It is the book that first got me interested in flies and I am sure was the catalyst for so many of today's Dipterists. Who could resist the fantastic photograph of Volucella zonaria on the cover and Cyril Hammond's fabulous drawings and paintings? It was also written with a charm and authority that would be hard to repeat. Sadly, it went out of print many decades ago and can only be obtained second hand. Most copies are pretty well 'loved'. Unfortunately, Cyril's paintings were lost when he died and there is no way that they can be re-used.

The book itself, whilst still very readable and informative, is also considerably dated. Our knowledge of the British fauna has expanded by perhaps as much as 1,000 species since the original edition was published in 1951. The taxonomic arrangements have changed and so too has much of the nomenclature so, although a 'must have' on the library shelf, it is probably not the volume you would turn to now if you wanted to get 'into' flies? In actual fact, it is probably still the book to turn to for a general introduction! There is the excellent, but largely unillustrated, 'Dipterists Handbook' which is a valuable well of knowledge, but lacks such things as keys. There is also Pjotr Oosterbroek's 'The European Families of the Diptera: Identification, Diagnosis, Biology', which is the only readily accessible key to the European families unless you start to invest in the weighty Manual of Palaearctic Diptera, which is beyond the pocket or the shelf space of the average novice! In a similar vein, Stephen Marshall's 'Flies: The Natural History & Diversity of Diptera' is a huge shelf-filler, colourful and informative but would be difficult to use in a UK context.

A replacement for Colyer and Hammond has been long-needed and has been the dream for several of us for many years. It is a daunting task that is not helped by the potential challenges of sourcing the illustrations needed for keys and family accounts. Stuart and I have frequently discussed the idea of such a project but nothing has come of it. Conceptually, it does not really fit the WILDGuides model that we used for 'Britain's Hoverflies' because it needs to be big enough to accommodate well-illustrated keys. We have done a bit of preparatory work and Stuart has been photographing fly wings for a couple of years - he has about 50% of the families covered already!

After a long period of quiescence, we are now talking to a possible publisher and are building a team to write it - we need a range of expertise and will be working with Dr Tony Irwin (formerly Curator at Norwich Museum) and Dr Graham Rotheray whose work on Diptera larvae has been inspirational both in the UK and in many other parts of the World. Additional peer review will be needed and we are confident that this will be available through Dipterists Forum. All four of the team are well-versed in the challenges of producing user-friendly keys and guides, so we think we have the right foundations for a great product.

As we start to work up our ideas, we need to think carefully about what can be achieved. Such a book would be quite large and, if illustrated in colour, might be quite expensive to produce. It therefore makes sense to try to understand the market. What is the ceiling price that would dissuade the aspiring Dipterist from buying it? I believe that 'British Soldierflies and Their Allies' currently sells for £36.00 direct from BENHS for non-members and have seen it going for £49.00 from Amazon! I imagine we might be looking at a similar bracket of price. Also, what would potential purchasers place more emphasis on: descriptive text, keys or colour plates?
Our basic outline at the moment is as follows:
  1. It will be composed of 3 sections:
  • A substantial introduction. This would cover areas needed to understand the keys such as explaining the taxonomy and anatomical terms. An account of their life styles, biology and ecology of both adults and larvae, including treatment of medical and economic importance. Some very general coverage of the flies of macro-habitats.
  • Keys to the 106 families. These have been rigorously tested and developed over the past 10 years. This key has been used in previous FSC courses run by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris as well a substantial number of other courses run by Dipterists Forum.
  • Descriptions of each family intended to be laid out in double page spreads with text on the left-hand page facing illustrations. The detail in each family description will vary, with some of the more obscure, small families perhaps having a half page with one illustration whilst the larger and better known families (especially those where there is a Recording Scheme) better covered with more text and several pages of photographs. Family descriptions will include coverage of the larval biology where known and a header summarising things like the number of species on the British list, their size range, the ease or difficulty of identification and whether it is covered by a Recording Scheme.
  1. It would NOT aim to cover all species, even in popular families, but should be regarded as a companion to such guides as the Larger Brachycera, Syrphidae and Tipuloidea.

  2. It would be illustrated by a combination of field photos, detailed photos of preserved specimens and line drawings to highlight specific features. It may not be possible to obtain field shots of some of the more obscure families especially where the species are very small.
We cannot be sure about its dimensions but we favour B5 format or thereabouts. At the moment we are thinking of a volume of around 350 to 400 pages, ideally full colour, but it may be necessary to use two-colour or even black and white in the key in order to reduce production costs. Inevitably, it will have to be perfect bound and in a soft cover as case-bound is likely to raise costs too far.

This is probably a 'once in a generation' opportunity. If the project finds a home (we have renewed hopes), it will fill a big gap in the literature. Our intention is to produce something that will last for several decades but we do need to produce a book that sells sufficiently quickly for the publisher not to incur long-term storage costs and also to recoup what is likely to be a significant investment over a relatively short period (i.e. a few years). If we can secure a publisher (it will probably have to be a 'not for profit' venture) my guess is that we are looking at a lead-in time of 3-4 years during which Stuart and I will probably be chasing madly around the country trying to source fresh specimens for the necessary photographs. We will doubtless also be approaching some of the very excellent photographers who publish on Flickr etc for suitable images!


  1. I'd buy it, and around £40 sounds realistic. It would be a great addition to anyone's bookshelf. I imagine that it would easily find a market.

  2. A great idea.

    re pricing: sounds about right, but lots of people don't buy books these days. If it's not for profit it could be published as a set of PDF's at zero cost and would reach a wider audience.

    B5 is the size BENHS uses (eg Hoverflies and Soldierflies). Shame you don't feel they could publish it.

    Don't suppose it would fit the New Naturalist series?

    re sourcing images: you're welcome to use any from BioImages ( I’ve been doing a lot of focus stacking over the past 5 years – including over 400 species of Diptera (with 8 or more photos of each), primarily using ethyl acetate for comatose/immediate post-mortem. (I've an article in the next issue of Dipterists Forum Bulletin about this).

    re useful things to include: lots of wing diagrams/photos with the veins and cells labelled. Difficult to do from photos as wings aren't flat and the subcosta/humeral vein is often hidden in vertical view.

    re binding: please not Perfect Bound. It's such an oxymoron. (Just save time and issue it as loose leaf!)


  3. Never say never Malcolm, but BENHS moves at a pace that is slower than glacial! How many years has Alan Stubbs Craneflies book been waiting? I think it must be six or seven years since I tried to get it moving - and Alan is still tearing his hair out with the pace. If we had to join the queue then you can be sure that our book is unlikely to come out much before we are 90 - if ever! We would need to appoint a new set of authors to make sure it is updated!

    New Naturalist is really not an option - it has become a collector's series, is hugely expensive and not suited to the sort of project we have in mind.

    Wing photos are being done using slide mounted wings - they work fine - wet the wing in alcohol and then float onto the slide.

    Sorry, we won't be going wholly electronic - whilst some people have gone that way, it is not the majority. The Hoverflies WildGuide is available as an e-book and has probably sold fewer than 100 copies as such, whereas it has sold well in excess of 4,000 as a printed book (Perfect Bound).

  4. This is a fantastic idea Roger. I would buy it at that price.
    Have you looked at publishing as an RES/AIDGAP key? I heard from someone with one in progress that they were moving quite quickly

  5. Count me as another customer when it is published.

  6. Terrific news. It would undoubtedly fill a massive gap in the literature. I'd buy at almost any price, but I don't suppose I'm the ideal target for market research.
    An idea, but it may make it too big a project. How about making it a European wide guide to families. I don't think there are a big number of non UK families? It would make for a much bigger market. But, as I say it might be a step too far?

    1. A step too far I'm afraid Nigel - about another 20 families and none of us know anything about them! also we have no way of testing the keys (if we could write one). Also, would make the book bigger so the cost would go up and it would then be out of reach from our target market.