Creating an industry benchmark – Publishing the Australian Bird Guide

10 Dec 2018

An interview with the CSIRO Publishing team 

Australia is renowned for its unique and spectacular flora and fauna, particularly its bird life.

Bird-watching is an ever-growing past time, and the rise of citizen science has seen more and more people involved in monitoring and collecting data on Australia’s birds.

The Australian Bird Guide was in development for more than 10 years and represents the biggest investment in an individual title ever undertaken by CSIRO Publishing. It won the 2018 ABIA for Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year.

Where did the idea to create a new national bird guide come from?

The vision for CSIRO Publishing to produce and publish a new bird field guide for Australia was the brainchild of John Manger, former Books Publishing Director, CSIRO Publishing.

As a British expat (at the time) and keen bird watcher himself, John has exceptional experience in publishing bird books and believed that Australia needed a new field guide, equivalent to the best bird guides published in Britain and Europe.

Of course with four competing titles in the Australian market, the initial question that had to be asked was “Do we really need another bird guide”? It was not just the addition of new species, or changes to existing material that made a compelling case, rather advances in technology provided an unprecedented opportunity to produce a more detailed field guide, to meet the needs of a new breed of bird watcher.

Given the extraordinary investment both financially and in the years and years of work which we knew would be required by both the authorship team and CSIRO Publishing staff, our final objective was to ensure that The Australian Bird Guide would become an industry benchmark.

How many people does it take to create an industry benchmark bird guide? 

Australian Bird Guide, p.398-399. Supplied by CSIRO Publishing.

From concept to release, the publication of The Australian Bird Guide was truly a team effort – editorial, production, marketing and sales, customer service and warehouse staff all played a role in its success. While the Guide represented the largest investment in a single book that CSIRO Publishing has ever undertaken, our staff are highly experienced in publishing complex books with specialised content and multiple images to the highest publishing standards.

Realisation of the vision was heavily dependent on commissioning the best authors and artists in Australia, and significant time was dedicated to selecting a pre-eminent team. Once selected, the authors and artists worked closely with CSIRO Publishing, each other and with birdwatchers around the country to source the information needed. The team amassed a photographic database of over 300,000 digital images to use as reference material, along with extensive field experience and published material.

Due to the scale of the project, the book was in production for several years, with text revisions and editing commencing whilst the artwork was still being completed. The typesetting was complex, with over 4700 images to be set, most with accompanying text labels and scale bars. The distribution maps, which are critical for the usefulness of the book, were developed by BirdLife Australia from a database of 16 million records.

The marketing and sales team were also involved in the book right from the initial concept, helping to ensure that all decisions made during development were appropriate for the final product, while promotion and sales plans were commenced more than two years before publication.

And the book certainly wouldn’t have been such a success without the tireless efforts of our customer service and warehouse team in getting the book into the hands of our readers! We also partnered with multiple organisations to support the success of the book, including BirdLife Australia, Pitch Projects (publicity), our national distributor New South Books, and our international co-publishing partners Bloomsbury and Princeton University Press.


From A-Z                                                             

Sourcing content for any field guide is a taxing and remarkable achievement and to that end we selected three of Australia’s leading ornithologists for the task: Peter Menkhorst; Danny Rogers; and Rohan Clarke. Their ongoing engagement with the Australian birding community, and their own considerable personal experience, meant that they knew what it took to produce a new and improved field guide.

One early resolve was to organise the book by type of location – marine, freshwater or terrestrial. This is a departure from other Australian bird guides and means that species which are likely to be found together in the wild, are placed closely together in the book. Coloured tabs at the edge of each page also enables the user to easily locate species, as does the visual quick reference guide inside the front cover.

The text has been thoughtfully considered to provide users with key identification characteristics for each species, along with characters of importance for the age and sex of species (these are also labelled on the illustrations), followed by information relating to the observation of each species, such as the habitat where it is found.

The distribution maps in the book are highly accurate, but the authors chose to include a ‘likelihood of encounter score’. This score is represented by a circular symbol – the more solidly filled the circle, the more likely it is to be seen.

These editorial decisions are what distinguishes The Australian Bird Guide from others on the market, and always with the end user in mind.

Is making a scientific book different to other types of books?

Publishing scientific books is no different to any other publication, in that we strive to ensure excellent and accurate content that meets the needs and interests of the end reader. However, with a field guide, there are some additional challenges in ensuring that the content is up-to-date and accurate. It was important to determine early on which sources, both in Australia and internationally, to follow for the book, especially in regards to the species names. We also had to ensure that the development of the book was flexible enough to accommodate updates in information, such as names, distribution, descriptions, that arose during the production stages.

What was involved in developing all the wonderful illustrations? 

One of the earliest and most important decisions in the design and production of The Australian Bird Guide was the choice of artwork over photographs to illustrate the bird species. Artwork offers the benefit of providing the fine detail required to identify the bird’s distinguishing features in a way that photographs cannot depict – subtle differences in colour, exact plumage patterns and the relative size of eye to bill. 

Jeff Davies in Studio. Image courtesy of Jeff Davies.

But who could or would take on the mammoth task of illustrating more than 900 species?

John Manger consulted with international art experts about which artists should not only be considered, but whose styles could be made to blend together for a “unified” look in the book. More than 60 artists were considered, with John personally interviewing many himself before three amazing artists were selected: Jeff Davies; Peter Marsack; and Kim Franklin. The result was over 4700 specifically commissioned paintings – many more than the number of species included. The reason for this is that by following on-line bird forums the authors gleaned that one of the most common difficulties birdwatchers encountered was the ability to distinguish between similar species. Therefore this became a clear objective – to demystify the bird groups that regularly caused confusion.

Every bird was hand painted to be the most detailed and accurate representation of each species – male, female and juvenile. Where space allowed additional images of the bird in flight or in its habitat were included, along with some characteristic postures and behaviours, and intricate details found on beak, feathers and feet.

Jeff Davies at Shallow Inlet. Photo courtesy of Peter Menkhorst.

The project also required tireless work by our editorial and production team to catalogue paintings, scan and reproduce them is a way that did justice to the original artwork. The comprehensive, detailed and stunning illustrations in The Australian Bird Guide are one of the main reasons the book took 10 years to publish – given the amazing reception and feedback the book has received, we think you will agree that it was worth the wait.

To what extent did a relationship with the niche audience of bird lovers contribute to the success of the book? What’s the bird loving audience in Australia like? 

Australia is renowned for its unique and spectacular flora and fauna, particularly its bird life. Bird-watching is an ever-growing past time, and the rise of citizen science as seen more and more people involved in monitoring and collecting data on Australia’s birds.

BirdLife Australia is one of the country’s leading conservation organisations, boasting more than thirteen thousand Twitter followers, with branches in every State and Territory. CSIRO Publishing has had a long association with BirdLife Australia, and given the expert authorship team all have active ties to the Australian birding community, the rumours that a new field guide was in the works, was percolating almost from the book’s initial conception.

But the birding community were not just an audience for this publication – they also played a fundamental role in the development of the guide itself. The authorship team gathered opinions from birdwatchers around the country to identify the information they needed in a new bird guide. The team also crowd-sourced many of the photographs that the artists used as the basis of their artwork.

Given publication was 10 years in the making, the publication of The Australian Bird Guide almost took on mythical status. But we also knew that for a new field guide to be warranted, accepted and extolled, we had to produce a quality guide of game-changing proportions, and shortcuts were not an option. The Australian birding community would expect nothing less – we think in the publication of The Australian Bird Guide, we have delivered!

What feedback have you received about the book?       

One of the most gratifying outcomes from publishing The Australian Bird Guide is the overwhelming positive praise and support we’ve received from the Australian birding community and nature lovers in general. It is apparent that the book is having a significant impact for many readers, from those who use it as a professional reference through to those who identify birds in their backyards.

We’ve also had tremendous support from Australian booksellers and retailers and we believe the publication of The Australian Bird Guide has strengthened our brand within this community.

As well as winning the 2018 ABIA Small Publishers Adult Book of the Year, The Australian Bird Guide was awarded the 2017 Whitley Medal for outstanding zoological literature by the Royal Zoological Society of NSW. It has been internationally recognised as one of five books shortlisted in the British Birders’ Choice Awards for best new bird book in 2017, and was also awarded Book of the Year on the popular birding website Fatbirder.

We have also received numerous positive published reviews, with a few highlights as follows:

“Not only does The Australian Bird Guide successfully provide a rich, contemporary bird identification book, it has the potential to play a far more significant cultural role – in cataloguing the full extent of the glorious variety of Australian birds it becomes a palpable celebration of the wonder of nature.”
Sean Dooley, Sydney Morning Herald online, July 2017
“The ABG is undeniably the most comprehensive field guide to be published in Australia to date, surpassing previous guides in the quantity and accuracy of illustrations and pertinent information.”
Richard Noske, Australian Book Review, October 2017
“If you are looking at getting a field guide to the birds of Australia, the ABG is undoubtedly the best.”
Michael Szabo, Birds New Zealand (14), June 2017
“It is bold and beautiful, it’s meaty, beaty, big, and bouncy and, as promised, it boldly goes where no guide has gone before… it will almost certainly be the guide to which I turn first.”
Harvey Perkins, Canberra Bird Notes 42(2), July 2017
Jeff Davies, Danny Rogers, Peter Marsack, Peter Menkhorst, Rohan Clarke, Kim Franklin & Publisher John Manger – supplied by CSIRO Publishing.