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How a Twitter Thread About Tits, Boobies and Loons Became a Book

Behind the Work 228 Add to collection

The respectable BBH creative director Stu Royall on a series of puerile jokes about birds that led to an unexpected publishing deal

How a Twitter Thread About Tits, Boobies and Loons Became a Book

The process of getting to a winning idea is different for every creative. But who of us hasn’t delved unexpectedly deep into a chain of obscure Wikipedia articles when we’re supposed to be doing something more ‘productive’? What you discover may well provoke a thought worthy of tweeting about, but you wouldn’t expect it to transform you into a published author. Neither did Stu Royall. But in pursuing the puerile thought that it’s funny how some birds are called ‘boobies’, he ended up writing a book.

Although he admits it was a fluke, to be fair to Stu he is a creative director at BBH in London. So trawling Wikipedia for something to provoke a fruitful idea that can be put to use for his clients is a significant part of his job. 

This surprise success story of ‘Tits, Boobies and Loons’ made LBB’s Alex Reeves smile, so he asked Stu to tell the story.


LBB> Did this book start as a Twitter thread? How did the idea form?


Stu> Yes, this book is basically a Twitter thread that got out of hand. 

I think I’d been watching an Attenborough documentary and it tickled me hearing someone with his gravitas, possibly our greatest living human, saying the word “boobies” over and over. I was going to make the joke that men would literally name all the birds instead of going to therapy, but before I did I thought I’d check Wikipedia to see if I could find any other funny examples. And long story short, yes I did.


LBB> How much trawling of Wikipedia did it take to find all of these bird names?


Stu> A lot. This really shouldn’t have been a surprise but, my god, there are so many bird names. And because of the way they’re named (thick-kneed, short-legged, rough-faced, plum-headed etc.) they all sounded like deeply personal insults. I liked the idea that ornithologists, who had dedicated their lives to identifying and studying all these different species of birds, secretly hated them.
 

LBB> When did you first think this could be more than a Twitter thread?


Stu> About a week after the thread went viral, a commissioning editor at HarperCollins got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in turning it into a book. Now, I've long harboured dreams of becoming a published author, I just never imagined it would be in the form of a joke bird-spotter's guide. Beggars can't be choosers though. It sounded like a fun project, so I said yes. I’ve had a lot of creatives ask me how I went about pitching the idea to publishers, but the reality is it was a total fluke.
 


LBB> What was the process of making it into a book?


Stu> Firstly, I had to spend a lot more time on wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_by_common_name. There were 29 birds in the original thread and more than double that in the final book. It was quite a fun distraction though. I’d dip in and out of it in between briefs. Harper Collins wanted to publish the book globally, so I had to make sure there was a good amount of avian diversity in there. 

Once I settled on the final list, I wrote a short caption for each bird and sent it to the publishers. Then they commissioned an illustrator, Libby Morris, to do all the artwork. I really liked how beautiful and sincere Libby’s illustrations were. She clearly loves birds and that comes across in her work. It juxtaposed really well with my profanity-laced copy.
 

LBB> What were some of the fun creative decisions you had to make in the process?


Stu> I toyed with the idea of including a fake bird name in there to see if anyone noticed, but I didn’t want to run the risk of pissing off the bird-spotting community. You don’t want to beef with those people.

One of the birds we did include is called the ‘invisible rail’. To be honest, it doesn’t sound like an insult, but it was such a delightfully odd name I had to use it somehow. We decided to leave that page blank, without an illustration. An easy day at the office for Libby.

The hardest choice was settling on a title. I think I wanted it to be something ridiculously long like, “A Spotter’s Guide to Birds Named by People Who Clearly Hate Birds” but Harper Collins quite rightly shot that down. It needed to be something that immediately conveyed the book was humorous, not a scientific manual.
 

LBB> How different from your day job as creative director at BBH has it been?


Stu> I was astounded by how little interference there was from the publishers. Aside from the question of the title, they didn’t change a single word. I love my day job, but that never happens. They literally had no notes. Also, you’re allowed to swear in books.
 

LBB> How do you hope the book will play its part in people's lives? Are the ornithologists OK? Has this helped them to find help?


Stu> This is a powerful and moving piece of modern literature that I’m sure will reverberate through the ages. I hope it inspires ordinary people to check in on their ornithologist friends. They are not ok.


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BBH London, Fri, 18 Feb 2022 16:23:25 GMT