So You Think You Want to Write a Book?

Written by Roy Starkey, author of Minerals of the English Midlands.

Probably many people harbour a desire to write a book but how many of them follow through on this aspiration?  What are the issues to be addressed, and the hurdles to be overcome? GCG member Roy Starkey provides a personal insight from the author’s seat.

Minerals of the English Midlands

In 1987, Peter Embrey and Bob Symes published Minerals of Cornwall and Devon, the first in what was to become an occasional series of books on British Topographical Mineralogy. This was followed in 1990 by Minerals of the English Lake District – Caldbeck Fells, by Michael Cooper and Chris Stanley; and A Mineralogy of Wales by Richard Bevins in 1994. We had to wait until 2002 for Alex Livingstone’s Minerals of Scotland Past and Present and this was followed in 2008 by Minerals of Northern England by Bob Symes and Brian Young. I decided to enter the fray in 2014 with Crystal Mountains – Minerals of the Cairngorms, pulling together research and knowledge gathered over 25 years of exploring the Cairngorms.

The essential difference between Crystal Mountains and all of the other publications mentioned above is that it is a one man band project, self-funded and self-published. I learned a lot in the process, and thoroughly enjoyed most of the ‘journey’, particularly the field work, photography and research. The layout, typesetting and checking of the manuscript was really intense hard work and there is no getting away from that. I was very fortunate to engage the services of a professional typesetter who was happy for me to sit with him for a period of several weeks and we worked together to design and lay out the book. He “drove” the computer and I directed the layout. I should perhaps explain here that the process of typesetting involves importing ‘raw text’ from WORD or some other suitable word processing package, into a piece of software such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress, capable of outputting a detailed PDF file which incorporates all of the necessary commands and codification required by the printing industry. This is quite different to laying out a document in (say) MS WORD, and having it produced at a copy bureau. Colour images must be converted to CMYK format (for four colour offset litho printing), and ‘proper’ fonts must be used.

Suffice it to say that the world of typography, like many specialist trades, has a vocabulary all of its own – “H & J s”, kerning, leading, Cap height, X-height, ascenders and descenders and so on. The relationship between the column width and font size is important and has an influence on how the text will look on the finished page. So-called “rivers of white”, widows and orphans are things which all typesetters abhor.

The big advantage of this approach was that we could make all the decisions in real time, adapting text and or images to suit the eventual layout, without the need for extensive reworking, which would almost certainly have been the case had I simply passed over the text and a heap of image files. It also meant that I retained complete editorial control over the finished product, and whilst any shortcomings are mine, and mine alone, the book too is “mine”, uncorrupted by the whims of an institutional designer or editor. This meant that I could include items of personal relevance and interest, and tributes to colleagues and friends, as well as telling the story in the first person.

One of the many beautiful images in Roy’s new book Minerals of the English Midlands; Malachite encrusting chalcopyrite. Llynclys Quarry, near Oswestry, Shropshire. Roy Starkey specimen, Reg. No. RES 1610-083. Dimensions 60 × 35 × 25 mm. Image ©Roy Starkey.

The final task when publishing a book is to register it with Nielsen and to obtain an ISBN number for it. One has to purchase a run of ten ISBN numbers, and submit a name for the publisher, which can be as simple as “John Smith” or as complex as you wish. I decided to register ‘British Mineralogy Publications’. My wife immediately asked “What’s with the “s” on the end? There isn’t going to be ANOTHER one!”

Well, once the dust had settled, and several hundred copies of Crystal Mountains had been sold, after a short break, I was itching to have a go at another book. The obvious area to tackle seemed to be the Midlands – the area where I live, and which represented a sizeable “hole” in the geographical coverage of the UK. So, where to start? This was to be a rather different project and challenge to my first book, which had gradually coalesced from decades of research and study. Although I was familiar with the general mineralogy of the area, based on forty years of living and exploring the area, to provide a suitably authoritative work would require going back to basics, a full literature search, revisiting localities, and most particularly extensive museum visits and a raft of bespoke specimen photography.

The first major decision was to define the geographical area to be covered. The core area was obvious enough (the East and West Midlands – Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and so on), but I also wanted to include the Forest of Dean iron ore field and the Yate celestine area, the famous selenite locality of Shotover Hill in Oxfordshire, and Northamptonshire ironstone mining and the associated steel industry. After a certain amount of debate (with myself and others) I determined that I would include Cheshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire and Rutland, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands and Worcestershire.

Next a list of ‘key localities’ and ‘must have images (of specimens)’ was drawn up, and I set about creating a list of museum collections that I wanted to examine (many of which I was already familiar with to some extent, others not). In parallel with this I began an extensive literature search and compiled a virtual project library of electronic documents from Google Books, the Internet Archive, Hathi Trust and other sources. I also began a programme of fieldwork to establish the present state of localities, and to obtain images for possible inclusion in the eventual book.

Map of the project area covered in Minerals of the English Midlands. (C) Roy Starkey.

The greatest amount of time and physical effort was probably taken up with visiting and working on museum collections, and the photography of specimens and editing of the images. I have developed a complete portable studio which fits in a large wheeled suitcase (admittedly a rather heavy one), and includes a large sheet of non-reflective glass, soft box diffuser, electronic flash (my preferred light source because it gives an accurate colour temperature and eliminates any ‘camera shake’), a solid tripod, various props, wedges, reflectors, background materials – in short, anything and everything I could possibly need. The only thing I do not routinely carry to site is a table, because most locations are able to provide this, although on one occasion I have worked on a rather dusty window sill actually in the store, because there was no alternative. I use a Nikon 60 mm macro lens on a Nikon D5100 body coupled to a dedicated Nikon electronic flash.

There is not space here to go into the intricacies of photographing mineral specimens but the goal is to produce an attractive image, which faithfully reproduces the colour of the subject, avoids distracting reflections, and positions the specimen on a neutral or contrasting background without harsh shadows. Many photographers of mineral specimens (myself included) seek to create the impression that the specimen is ‘floating’ and this is achieved by using a sheet of glass suspended above a suitable background. Perhaps this might usefully form the subject of a future GCG workshop?

Having selected the specimens to be photographed, transported all the necessary kit to site, and actually ‘shot’ the image(s), there generally follows a considerable investment in editing and cleaning-up the selected image ready for publication. My top tip here is to spend as much time as you can removing all dust from the specimen and glass sheet BEFORE you press the shutter. Yes, you can sort most things out later in Photoshop, or Gimp, but it is much, much quicker to get it right at the outset!

Once you have a suitable cleaned-up image your problems are not yet entirely over. The small issue of sorting out copyright and permission to reproduce remains. The requirements of different institutions vary considerably, and you must not assume that because you took the photo on YOUR camera, that you own the copyright. Many museums and other institutions insist on retaining the copyright of all images taken of their specimens. Others are happy for the photographer to retain copyright, but require royalty-free use for any purpose, and there are a variety of other arrangements too. In short, getting permission to use images is a major headache and can take an amazing amount of energy and time to get sorted out – even when you obviously had permission to do the photography in the first place. Once you get into the territory of publication, it is a whole different world – What is the print run? Will it be on the cover? What territories will the publication be sold in? Will it be used on the internet? etc. etc. My advice is to get the photography done early, and start the approvals process as soon as you can.

Another stunning example of the images in Minerals of the English Midlands. Baryte, variety ‘oakstone’. Arbor Low, Derbyshire. Roy Starkey specimen, Reg. No. RES 0236-089. Dimensions 130 × 60 × 15 mm. Image © Roy Starkey.

OK, back to the book! It is important to have a plan – I actually prepared a Gantt Chart, and revised it every few months. Set an end date and work to it. Track progress. Be vigilant about where all the information comes from – be meticulously in your record keeping- it is amazingly annoying if you lose track of where a quotation or fact came from and have to spend hours or days trying to locate the source later.

Another priority task is to assemble a small group of people who can undertake peer review of the text as it develops. This is invaluable, and you would be well-advised to identify suitable people early in the process.

Data security – back it up, back it up and back it up again. I maintained three separate external hard drives of all images and project files, one of which was stored at a geographically separate location.

Gradually the whole thing comes together and you metamorphose from researcher and author to editor and project manager. The text is prepared and checked, it is laid out and images integrated, a list of references is compiled, and finally the painful, but essential, task of generating an index must be addressed.

Eventually, the final PDF file is prepared ready for transmission to the printer, and the author can relax …. Well, for a while at least, until several hundred, or perhaps thousands of, books arrive, and the next phase begins, but that is another story.

Minerals of the English Midlands will be launched at the Bakewell Rock Exchange (Mineral Show) on 13th and 14th October. Thereafter copies may be ordered online via Roy’s website www.britishmineralogy.com.

New publication Minerals of the English Midlands. © Roy Starkey

2 thoughts on “So You Think You Want to Write a Book?

  1. I completely agree and we can go much more in depth at every section 😀 I did author one smaller book self published and I cooperated on several bigger projects – both as writer and photographer. It is very time consuming and writing the draft version is the most easy part, unfortunately.

    Then photos, often seriously time consuming arrangements, travels, permits, editing… layout, reviews, corrections, more corrections, even more reviews and corrections…

  2. Many thanks for your comment. Roy has a follow up article coming out tomorrow (2nd October 2019), reflecting on the last year of the book project, in case you’re interested!

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