Purpose | History | Officers | Conference | Meetings | Committees | Procedures
Atlasing Handbook | Contacts | Published Atlases | NORAC home page

Handbook for Atlasing
North American Breeding Birds

Publishing the Breeding Bird Atlas
Janet R. Carroll
New York Atlas Project

A multi-authored publication, like the New York Breeding Bird Atlas, is considered to be the most difficult type of book to publish. Those of us who have edited an atlas can attest to that fact. The following discusses the publishing process for a hardcover book and makes recommendations based on the experience of the New York Atlas.

Choice of Publisher

Publication of the atlas can be done by any publishing company, but in only a few cases can it be done without an initial outlay of money. Neither New England Press, nor Cornell University Press, publishers of the Vermont and New York Atlases respectively, required money up front to publish the book. Other publishing companies in New York, such as Syracuse University Press and the New York State Museum, required as much as $10,000. Most commercial publishing companies are not interested in publishing books like an atlas which will have limited sales.

The Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas handled all aspects of their publication except for the printing. This approach gives complete control and responsibility for the publication to the editors. Editing, copy-editing, and proof-reading expertise are essential to the use of this method.

Publication Staff

The publication staff could potentially consist of the following: Editors, reference editor, managing editor, authors, art editor, and artiste. If at all possible, the book staff, particularly the editors, should work together in one location.

The number of editors should be small, keeping in mind that the more people editing the more distinct styles are affecting the final product. A separate editor for references is extremely useful for that most tedious and time consuming task. The managing editor is responsible for the financial and legal aspects of the book, including negotiating contracts and obtaining and budgeting funds.

Since a book with multiple authors presents special problems, experienced editors should be selected. It would be preferable if your editor(s) had previous experience working with a multi-authored book, but at least considerable book editing experience is very important. The advantages to choosing an experienced editor are obvious, but in addition to being familiar with such things as style sheets, editorial marks, style manuals, and copy-editing, an experienced editor will have much less trouble dealing with authors.

The original state atlas coordinator, if that person has good writing and editing skills, is one choice as an editor. There is probably no one in your state who will know as much about atlas data and its distribution statewide. She or he has handled the data on a daily basis and has information useful to its interpretation. I would even suggest that the atlas coordinator draft the paragraphs regarding distribution for all species accounts as an aid to the author. This will allow for consistent interpretation parameters. Your authors will presumably know much about the birds in the region where they live but often do not have a statewide perspective.

Selecting Authors

The decision on the number of authors to use is a difficult one. The more authors, the greater the style variation, the more people you will have to deal with on deadlines, the more good writers you will have to find, and the more personalities you will have to get to know. The fewer the authors the more you will have to be sure of their writing ability, longer deadlines will have to be established, the writer may find the writing tedious and mistakes may occur from burnout, and the authors may not be as knowledgeable about some of the species. The most interesting species accounts are those written by individuals who have either done research on the species or have a particular knowledge of the bird through considerable experience. Naturalists tend to want to write of the more colorful aspects of the species; scientists the more technical--there should be a happy medium.

No matter how many authors you select, be sure you have seen unedited (by someone else) writing from the candidates because bad writing will be a major problem. Have writing samples submitted if possible. If you encounter an author who doesn't write well eliminate that person from your writing staff; if you don't you will end up rewriting the accounts yourself. You will be unhappy, the writer will be unhappy, and time will be wasted.

The information provided to authors before they begin to write is critical. See Proceedings of the second Northeastern Breeding Bird Atlas Conference (1986) for material provided to New York and Ontario authors. No matter how clearly you feel you have made the guidelines to the writers, their interpretation will be different from yours in many cases. Be prepared to get the first draft of the first species accounts back to the writers quickly so they can see what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. Be firm about content and deadlines.

Selecting Artists

Someone knowledgeable about bird art should be appointed to coordinate the artwork for the book. Ask for samples of the type of art to be in the book from as many artists as you can, and choose as many as your art coordinator feels she or he can manage. The artists will have deadlines to meet and more artists are preferable to fewer. A committee should be formed to review and comment on the initial sketches. It will be necessary in most cases to prepare a contract with each artist to specify deadlines, size of drawings, ownership of original artwork, and other details.

Selecting Reviewers

It would be best to select technical reviewers who have done research on a species or family. This may not be possible, however, but you should be able to find reviewers who are knowledgeable in general. Individual reviewers are very different in their approaches--some don't say much, some do mostly editing, some make comments about content, and some thoroughly review the content for accuracy and make extremely useful comments. You, of course, want the latter.

Working with the Publisher

The publishing company staff can be very helpful to you in the preparation of your book. You must first agree upon the type of book you want to produce which can run the gamut from a flashy, colorful, and expensive book to a basic black and white version. The publishers will want to produce a book on which they will not lose money. You have to negotiate a contract with them (the publishing company usually has a standard format it uses). The contract will specify content, number of pages, your responsibilities, and the publisher's responsibilities. Your publisher must determine the number of words of each species account, size of the original artwork and reduction size for the book, quality and design of maps and overlays, format, and deadlines. The publisher makes several decisions some of which you can probably influence; some are completely at their discretion. Show the publisher a sample of a book similar in layout so they know what you are expecting the final product to look like. They will have their own opinion about such things as size of artwork and style and size of type based on what type of presentation they think will sell; their opinion may not be the same as yours so don't let this be a surprise.

Even with very careful preparation and discussion with them, unexpected complications will occur. These are examples of some of the problems experienced by the New York Atlas: the number of words specified by the publisher was too many and several accounts had to be shortened after the manuscript was submitted; some of the computer-produced maps were not of a quality acceptable to the publisher—some had to be redone and some had to have hand corrections paid for by the project (quality control of 238 computer-plotted maps is difficult); the word processing software used for the text and references cited could not be used by the typesetter and all disks had to be converted to ASCII format.

The publisher should deal only with the editors of the book. Direct contact between the publisher's staff and artists, writers, or others should be avoided.

Sample species accounts should be given to the publisher early on for their comments and suggestions. For example, you don't want to find out after you submit the manuscript (as they did in Vermont) that your publisher will not accept anecdotal information in the accounts.

The publisher will hire a copy-editor to go over the entire manuscript. The copy-edited manuscript will be an improvement over the original, and you will be grateful for this fresh look at the manuscript. By the time 238 accounts have been edited for the third time, the editors will no longer have any idea whether the writing is good or bad and will be glad to be rid of it for a while. The copy-editor will look in particular for inconsistencies and no matter how careful you have been more style decisions will be necessary.

Proofreading of the page proofs would best be done by a professional who will probably have to be paid by the project, not the publisher—someone who has not read the manuscript previously. The editors will also check the page proofs carefully, and you may want your authors to read them as well if the manuscript has changed considerably from the one submitted. Changes to the page proofs cost money, so the only changes made should be corrections of errors of fact or typos. This is not the time for revisions. One person should be in charge of putting all corrections on one set of page proofs.

The number of copies produced and the price will not be determined until the end, but the publisher will give you an estimate. The New York Atlas sells for $29.95 plus $12.95 for map overlays, which are sold separately, and 3,500 copies were printed.

Matters of style

In addition to having species accounts that are written similarly, there are many matters of style that have to be decided for consistency. The fiat below includes some style questions that must be decided upon. Authors should be made aware of all style decisions.

1. Decide on a standard reference for the following: bird, and other animal names, plant names, place names, plant community names, physiographic region names, forest type names, etc. Decide if you want to use only English names or both English and scientific names. When you use a place name such as a town, include a locating name such as a county, so individuals not familiar with your state will have a better chance of figuring out what part of the state you are referring to. As part of the editing process all names should be checked against the appropriate standard reference.

2. Decide which common names you want to capitalize—only those bird names which are current AOU names, former AOU English names, names of other animals and plants?

3. What abbreviations will you use—keep a fiat? CBC, BBS, USFWS, BBA, NWR, DDT, mm, km, ha, ft. in, mi, a.

4. Are you going to use the terms atlaser, atlasing, birder or birdwatcher, blockbusting or block busting.

5. Do you want to capitalize or put in quotes words like endangered species, possible, probable, confirmed, blue list?

6. Numbers—what is spelled out and what is in figures; 1,000 or 1000; 1980 to 1984 or 1980-84; % or percent; 4 July 1980 or July 4, 1980. Do you want to use metric with a conversion to English in the text; if so, provide the authors with the conversion figures to be used and advise them how to round off—whole numbers, one decimal?

7. Refer to birds either in the singular throughout or plural, but do not mix; e.g. "The Gray Jay is a bird of the spruce-fir forest," or "Gray Jays are birds of the spruce-fir forest.

Your publisher will recommend a style manual. Be sure each author has access to the style manual and all standard references. As you edit, other style decisions will continually have to be made. Make up a style sheet as you go along and each time you make a style decision, write it down so the next time the situation arises your style sheet will tell you what to do. Give your style sheet to the copy-editor.


Provide your authors with a printout of current references which can be obtained from a retrieval service. Spot check references and quotes used in the text for errors and if a particular author is making mistakes advise her or him.

Decide whether you want a references cited section or bibliography and advise the authors. Both New York and Vermont used only references cited, since there were such a large number of references.

Decide on your reference style and prepare a form for the authors to fill out for each reference used. Include all the information needed for each type of reference and prepare your form in such a way that your typist will be able to type everything in the correct order from the form with minimal instruction. Have your reference editor check each reference as it comes in with the species account drafts to make sure it is complete, have the typist enter the reference on the computer, and then have the reference editor check the typing. In addition to the master fiat of references cited, in New York a fiat of references were prepared for each species account so the authors could check for errors. Only the master fiat is printed in the book. WARNING: Keep up with the references. References can become a nightmare if they are not kept up to date. Since some references get eliminated as the editing progresses, when you do your final check of references against the species accounts, make a note beside each reference of the corresponding species account(s). A copyeditor will check your references against the text and for style.

Timetable for Preparation and
Publication of New York Atlas

Contract with Cornell University Press signed 6/85

Atlas field work completed 8/85

Information sent to authors 8/85

Atlas data clean-up completed 12/86

Final distribution maps given to authors 2/87

Manuscript submitted to publisher 6/87-8/87

Copyediting completed 11/87

Typesetting completed 12/87

Prepublication advertising 1/88

Proofreading completed 2/88

Book available for sale 6/88

Atlasing Handbook contents page

The NORAC website is hosted and maintained by Bird Studies Canada