Lessons learnt in writing a book (on Courtship and mating in butterflies)

Finding a publisher

This was my first book and I was very pleased to get offered a contract by CABI Publishing. I initially approached a well-known (Oxbridge!) University Press, but they decided it was not for them; however, they kindly passed me on to the commissioning editor for CABI, who invited me to send them a submission. CABI are a ‘not-for-profit scientific research and publishing organisation’ and publish about 60 books a year covering a wide range of subjects, see here, including entomology. I was happy with their input and help with the production of the book, and they were quite generous – compared to other publishers I have heard about – both in the supply of free copies (6) to the author, and in sending out copies to journals and esteemed experts!

Copies of my book. The project becomes a reality after three and half years!

Prior to making a formal application, I had done some groundwork in terms of writing a number of popular articles on the same subject. I recognised from the start that although the subject was a personal passion, I had no track record as an academic researcher on butterfly behaviour, so I needed to establish some credentials. I have been writing a natural history blog – featuring photographs and articles on butterflies – for over five years, and I also had a photographic website with many butterfly photographs (I am currently moving over to Flickr!). I had written a lengthy article on the same subject, which was published by Antenna (below), the magazine of the Royal Entomological Society of London. So, the publishers had a wide variety of related materials to consider, in addition to my formal proposal. Nevertheless, there was quite a long gap (many months) between submitting the proposal and being offered a contract. This is the stage when your proposal is sent out to anonymous referees for peer review. The publisher also needs to know who the intended audience is, how long it will take you to finish the MS, and whether there are any competing texts. Clearly, first time authors are a bit of an unknown entity.

Article on ‘Photographing courtship and mating behaviour in butterflies’ Antenna 2017: 41 (4), 166-179.

Preparing the submission

In retrospect, I probably did not spend enough time crafting the proposed contents list, so the shape of the book evolved somewhat as I went along. To be honest, although I had a clear idea of the subjects I wanted to cover, not being an established expert in all the fields before I began, meant that the work was somewhat of a voyage of discovery. In fact, discovering as much as I could about butterfly reproductive behaviour was one of the prime motivations for writing the book in the first place! In the end, after splitting up some of the longer sections, it came down to ten chapters (see Table of Contents, below at end), each of which was in effect a separate review, albeit written in an accessible style. It did occur to me at one stage, to try and get some of the chapters published separately as review papers, but that would have been a Herculean effort, and would probably have failed!

What kind of book?

I wanted from the start, to write a book in clear, plain English, without references (citations) embedded in the text like a scientific paper. So, I settled on a method of using numbered notes – one for each paragraph – to provide a list of academic publication(s), on which my statements were based, and which could be looked up in the references section. Additionally, the notes contained short quotations and sometimes elaborated further on technical issues. CABI kindly agreed to this, even though it was not their usual format. Initially, the notes were too long and included some repetition of what was already in the main text, which did not please the editor! So, in the end, I distilled them down to a series of references, together with the occasional comment(s) and quotation, and included these at the end of each chapter. This means that the text can be read freely, without a great littering of references, but it remains an academic publication in the sense that everything I have written is buttressed by references to (mostly) peer reviewed publications. This is an important distinction from a popular scientific book where the text is just someone’s opinion, without referencing everything, or just including a list of further reading.

I spent a great deal of time and effort trying to boil down the original research into readable text. Whether or not I have succeeded will depend on the reader. I tried to capture my own excitement on coming across different aspects of courtship behaviour in butterflies from around the world. Many of these species were of course unfamiliar to me, whilst others I have been lucky enough to see for myself in the field, even though observing courtship behavioir is never easy. I discovered many relevant examples by trawling through a diverse range of material, putting the terms ‘courtship’ and ‘mating’ into search engines and also searching the ‘lesser’ journals, e.g. those published by Lepidopteran societies around the world. It pays to have the obsessive habits of a stamp collector in doing this work, but no doubt, I missed some examples!😅

Marsh Fritillary (Eurodryas aurina aurinia) courtship ;larger female on the right. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

Surprisingly, given the extrodinary range of behaviour described in the literature, no one seems to have written a book on this exact subject before (at least as far as I am aware?). This is surprising given the large number of formidable scientists working on various aspects of butterfly behaviour. There are of course dozens of academic texts on various aspects of the subjects I was covering; just no overall synthesis. One reason, might be that much of the material is distributed in many minor journal and non-SCI publications, the so-called ‘grey literature’. Another reason, perhaps, is that ‘behaviour’ is a rather an ‘old-fashioned’ subject, particularly as I was not attempting to link it to molecular biology or genetics. Furthermore, a lot of knowledge is anecdotal, and therefore difficult to gather and impossible to reference. Someone said to me recently: “have you seen the interesting courtship behaviour of Papilio polytes (see below)?” Sorry, I haven’t, and what’s more I have never seen any reference to it! That’s why in the introduction, I referred to writing a book on courtship and mating behaviour in butterflies as being a somewhat foolhardy venture, which no self-respecting lepidopterist would have attempted!

Common Mormon (Papilio polytes f. cyrus) female. Thailand. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

In order to avoid sounding as though I was an established expert in all of the fields covered, which I am not, I introduced the book, in no uncertain terms, as a voyage of discovery on my part. If I have any talent, it is in terms of reviewing and synthesizing areas of knowledge. I found much of the scientific knowledge about these subjects exciting and interesting in it’s own right, and perhaps we scientists sometimes lose the chance to wonder at the nature and diversity of life, in the rush to test hypotheses and place results in conceptual framework? I think it is still worthwhile in the modern age to present – particularly to students – an observational approach which they can use to accumulate their own knowledge, and then go on ask questions which require experimentation and design. Of course one can also carry out observational experiments in the field, particularly by analysing video recordings, for example. All of the great biologists I have had the good fortune to come across, such as W D Hamilton for example, were in any case terrific observers of nature in the field, i.e. great naturalists (see: Segerstrale, U. (2013). Nature’s oracle: the life and work of WD Hamilton. OUP Oxford).

The process

Involving specialists in the writing of a book like this, which covers a gamut of fields, is enormously helpful and I was fortunate in that a number of scientists agreed to comment on relevant chapters or shorter sections of text. The extent to which academic books are peer reviewed on completion (as well as on submission, see above), seems to vary, but the final MSs are however, usually sent to anonymous experts for comments and opinion. Nevertheless, the more feedback and review you can obtain during the production of the book, the better. It gives the editors confidence, and it provides the book with a certain authority if you can name such people who have read and commented on various chapters, in the acknowledgements section. All this takes time, of course.

The onus is therefore, very much on the author to ensure the facts are correct, before submission. On his or her head, be it! Fortunately, the advantage of an academic publication, and one reason why the book ends up being more expensive than the average hardback publication, is that there is an intensive production process – e.g. in the form of copy editors, picture editors, proof-readers and so on – together with oversight by various levels of editors, which irons out any errors or typos.

Gatekeeper Butterflies (Pyronia tithonus) mating pair; larger female on top resting on leaf. Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

The whole process of researching, compiling, editing and producing a major academic text, is surprising labour intensive. It took me over three years to produce a finished copy, and I am retired, with no other commitments other than my hobbies! At first, I was worried that someone else might pop up and produce a similar text before I had finished mine, but in practice it takes so much time and effort to read, research and compile the finished text, that I soon realised that it was very unlikely that someone else was doing the same thing! Good quality content is hard to produce (see here: Martin McQuillan: “Content is hard to produce, so never give it away cheaply’).

Up and until the point that you submit the book to the publishers, you are on your own, and it’s down to the author to do everything that is necessary; post-submission it becomes more of a team effort.

Non-academic texts, it must be said, are much easier to write. In the hands of skilled writers, popular scientific books can be both entertaining and informative, but they vary in the extent that they are comprehensive and reliable. In truth, there is no hard and fast distinction between academic and non-academic books. What counts, is the degree if scholarship involved.

In retrospect, I would like to have interviewed and involved even more scientists engaged in the field – to have gone around the world interviewing and meeting them – but this all takes time (and money), and in any case most scientists are just too busy to respond to queries all the time. In addition, it is also easy to get caught up in academic disputes, or differences of opinion, which are impossible to resolve as an author. All one can do, is point out such differences – e.g. whether butterflies really are combative with each other (!) – and leave the reader to make up their own mind or pursue the matter further themselves.

Plain tigers (Danaus chrysippus bataviana) male and female in copula. Bali, Indonesia. Photograph by Raymond JC Cannon

At the end of the day, a book written by a single individual will reflect their views and interests, as well exposing their limitations and shortcomings. Textbooks written by a series of authors, experts in their own fields, will often be the best accounts of the ‘state of the art’ in given subjects, but they may lack the homogeneous style and unique perspective of a single author. Would I write a book with someone else? No, because I want to express the subject in my own style, and it would probably be even more stressful in terms of coordinating the timing and delivery!

Would I do it again?

The answer is yes, even though it can be very stressful to be facing deadlines. Next time, I will do even more groundwork before approaching a publisher and agreeing a time frame. I will aim to have the shape and content of the book much more accurately mapped out and hopefully, I will also have downloaded and documented many of the figures and photographs early on, not waiting until after I had written the text. Ideally, all aspects of the production, text and figures, need to be done in parallel. Nevertheless, different sections do get written at different times and this can sometimes lead to problems: e.g. Smith (1998) in one section is not the same as Smith (1998) in another section, and you only realise there is (Smith 1998a, 1998b) at the end!

Is it worth it?

Unsurprisingly, this depends on what you want to get out of it. Financially, it is most definitely not a very profitably return on investment for the author, although the rewards you get as an author, depend heavily on how well you write it, and how aggressively you promote it, perhaps! Nevertheless, the amount of time and effort spent on an academic text is usually out of all proportion to the anticipated financial returns (e.g. 5% of the sales price). So, unless, you happen to write a very popular scientific book, like the The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, or the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, do not expect to make a living by writing academic texts.

Books can however, be good way of giving your publication record a boost, and hopefully your academic reputation, but this will not materialise in the form of any financial benefits, if you are retired. Most scientists are probably too busy seeking grants, doing their research and getting it published, to take on the additional task of writing a book. Many do so though, and I am full of admiration for academics who manage to fit in book writing around a hectic teaching and researching schedule. However, many textbooks are written by people after they retire, when they have more time to pull together their knowledge.

No, I think the main reward from writing a book is just the process of doing it. Writing can be very enjoyable and you do not really know what you are going to come up with until you start writing. Researching and reading about new subjects is also very rewarding, although to really enjoy the process, you need to have enough time to explore subjects at leisure, and to discover the unique treasures – findings, observations and discoveries – that lay buried in the literature, or these days, hidden in the Internet.


It really helps if you can use your own photographs. As a photographer, I fondly imagined that books would have a budget to cover the costs of purchasing photographs, but editors do not usually have funds for this and prefer it if images can be obtained for free. Fortunately, there are many good photographs which are in the Creative Commons (CC), in other words they can be used for free, with the appropriate acknowledgements. All photographs on Wikipedia for example, are in the Creative Commons. Some photographers are incredibly generous in placing at least some of their photographs in the CC, but many are simply not aware that they can select the appropriate license, and therefore their pictures remain rights reserved, by default. A number of photographers generously allowed me to use their work, including John Brackenbury and Adam Gor (below), amongst others.

Papilio mnemosyne – newly eclosed (Tahitótfalu, Pest, Hungary) photograph by Ádám Gór

Many of the very best photographs, particularly those of a scientific nature – extreme close-ups, for example – are however, simply unobtainable without paying for them; and rightly so, as photographers have to make a living. So, for many books, taking or obtaining high quality photographs is extremely important. Indeed, some books are build around the work of individual photographers, such as Piotr Nazkrecki (The Smaller Majority) and Georg Glaeser (The Evolution of Flight and other books), for examples. So, taking or obtaining appropriate photographs remains an important goal in the preparation of any biology book, as much so as researching and writing the content.

Figures (e.g. graphs, diagrams, composite photos) can usually be obtained from academic publications, i.e. papers, without having to pay a fee, if the publisher is a not-for profit organisation. Otherwise, it can be very expensive. These days, the process is straightforward, as there is usually a GetPermission link associated with every online publication, which opens up to the Copyright Clearance Center. Then, it is just a matter of filling out the online form in order to get copyright permission to use the figure(s). The price and availability depends on its use, business or academic etc.

Obtaining published material

Despite having written a number of book chapters, reviews and popular articles over the course of my career, I had never written a book. So, the process was something of a learning curve me. I am hugely grateful to have done so in the Internet Era, where the task of obtaining references and published material is so much easier. Although I am no longer attached to a research institute, I found I could get most (90% or more?) of the academic publications I needed via the Internet (using ResearchGate, Google Scholar, pdfs posted on researchers’ websites, asking for a copy(!); and digital collections like the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the  Library of Congress). Those that I could not get hold of by these means, I obtained via the British Library in London (which is a nice day out in any case).

The whole world of academic publishing seems to be in a state of flux, with more and more papers becoming Open Access. There is also the possibility of publishing by yourself, e.g. using Amazon Kindle Textbook Creator. However, the benefits of having a professional proof-reader and copy editor go over your work cannot be underestimated. I was amazed, and somewhat embarrassed, by how many tiny little errors they found and corrected!

Stepping out of the silo!

Finally, I want to finish by mounting my favourite hobby horse! Science is becoming so specialised, and highly technical, that it exists in more and more separate niches. Specialists are sometimes said to be workings in ‘silos’ – steep-sided compartments, entirely separate from other, albeit fairly similar, disciplines – and not stepping outside of these structures. To communicate a broad field of knowledge, one needs to become familiar with new disciplines, and to step back and take a broader view. This is becoming much more difficult, as individual fields are producing more and more research, and it can be very difficult to deal with all this output and to get and accurate overview. Nevertheless, if we are to communicate science to a broader public, we need to take such steps and to familiarize ourselves with what is going on in much wider fields of endeavour. It is also very rewarding to obtain a wider view of what is happening in science and to read (and write) about research in different areas from your own specialisation. You might get criticized for being a dilettante, but that is a price worth paying, I think, for attempting to communicate to a wider audience, than the few scientists and fellow researchers who read the average scientific paper.

Table of contents

  • 1: Introduction
  • 2: Sexual selection and mate choice
  • 3: Strategies for locating a mate
  • 4: Seeing and being seen
  • 5: Courtship behaviour
  • 6: Body language
  • 7: The Mating Game
  • 8: The inside story
  • 9: Scents – chemical communications
  • 10: Wing colours and iridescence
  • 11: Glossary
  • 12: Summing Up
  • 13: Annex 1.
  • 14: References


This book presents a readable account of butterfly behaviour, based on field observations, great photographs and the latest research. The main focus is on courtship and mating – including perching, searching and territorial behaviour – but to understand these subjects it is necessary to explain how mates are chosen and this requires sections on wing colours and patterns. A chapter on butterfly vision is also essential in terms of how butterflies see the world and each other. There have been exciting discoveries in all of these fields in recent years, including: butterfly vision (butterfly photoreceptors), wing patterns (molecular biology), wing colouration (structural colours and nano-architecture), mating strategies and female choice (ecology and behaviour).







  1. Hi Ray, Well Congratulations on all your hard work and tenacity over the years producing this amazing piece of work. How did you keep going – it must be dedication and love of the subject?! Especially as you were learning a lot of it as you went along”. A Herculean task as you say – I’ve only ever done one book chapter, and that was slow enough. Anyway its a great way to use your photographs and collate the information that we have been reading on here that last few years.
    Best Wishes for its success.
    Peter, York UK

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