January 3, 2013 | 1
About three years ago I had an epiphany, or maybe it was a small bout of lunacy. I realized that I wanted to try to write a real book – something that wasn’t just another peer-reviewed journal article reporting the minutiae of a piece of research that precisely ten other people on the planet were genuinely interested in (one posthumously).
And so I did.
Except it wasn’t quite that straightforward, and I thought I’d share a few experiences with any of you considering taking this plunge.
First, let me be clear that I think that I have been incredibly, almost unbelievably lucky in how things have played out. I have heard so many tales of writer’s struggles, rejections, endless revisions, dodgy agents, brutal editors, and half-realized ambitions that I know my experience has been blissfully free of major hurdles.
So bear that in mind, and take the following collective snippets as simply one report from the trenches of popular science book writing.
The initial steps. Talk to friends and colleagues who’ve already done it and remember; if you’re a scientist you have an implicit advantage because you probably already have something you’re itching to explain to the world, and you probably know more about it than 99.9% of the population without having to lift a finger. Your disadvantage is that, well, you’re a scientist.
Although it’s not too hard to slither into the quasi-academic, quasi-popular market through a university-based publishing house, the world will open up much, much more if you get yourself a literary agent. Not only will they be vastly more knowledgeable than you, they will actually get out there to work on your behalf – a strange and wonderful concept if you’re coming from academia.
How do you get an agent? Talk to colleagues, talk to friends, talk to friends of friends. In my case, and I kid you not, I was led to my wonderful agent through my eldest daughter being in the Girl Scouts and the parent of another Scout being an experienced editor in the publishing business. Talk about serendipity.
Listen to your agent. Yes, put aside your ivory tower king-of-the-castle behavior and do what you’re told.
The initial big piece of advice my agent gave me was to start blogging. I wasn’t convinced that this was important, but (see previous point) I did what I was told. At first it was out on my lonesome and a year later, well, here we are at Scientific American. Best investment of time ever.
If you do blog, take it seriously and consider what people might want to read. Self-involved reportage of ‘my grand life in science’ is in my opinion a total turn-off unless it’s making a point or telling a real story (a rule that I’ll hypocritically ignore in this post). Write about the science, write with some passion, and above all treat it as continual practice for the big stuff. And remember, people who have a general interest in science want to understand – you have a certain responsibility as a purveyor of expert knowledge to communicate that knowledge with some accuracy. It’s not always easy, so be prepared to ‘fess up if you screw up.
Start thinking about that book proposal. Maybe you already have a brilliant idea? Well, be ready to ditch it like cold coffee if your agent and editors stare at you with ill-disguised blank faces. They really are the experts here and the goal is for people to actually buy and read your book. A good book idea will feel that way to everyone involved, not just your ego.
Be helpful. If your agent says you need something on paper next week, do it. If they suggest you alter text, do it. Go back to behaving like an eager grad student.
If you are in the happy situation that you have an offer for your book – let your agent do the talking and trust that what’s good for them is good for you too. Figure out how long you think you need to write the book. Don’t give yourself too much time because procrastination is your enemy.
Write. I guess everyone has a different approach, but I found that breaking it down to a ‘daily quota’ of words was pretty helpful. By the end of each week assess how much you’ve done and (honestly) how much of it you’ll end up keeping. Be ready to jot down ideas. Don’t put it off no matter how inconsequential it may seem, by the time you’ve finished brushing your teeth you’ll have lost what made it seem so special.
Keep notes. That off-hand comment in a sentence? It may well need a footnote or end note by the time you’re finished, so pause and find a reference, write it down or paste it at the end of the word file. Trust me, you’ll love yourself much more in a few months time. This process is, for me at least, very different than when I write an academic article where ‘doing the references’ always comes last.
Keep reading. Read what you’ve written, read other things, read novels, read science, read blogs, read newspapers (yes, those antiquated things). That flow of words keeps you in the zone. And use every opportunity to practice your own writing, even daily emails present a chance to keep your grammar skills up to snuff – students and colleagues will be amazed at their erudite respondent.
Get feedback, especially from your editor if you can. Better to know that you’ve written the pop-sci equivalent of Soviet metaphysical free verse poetry early rather than late.
Remember your audience. One of the hardest things I’ve found writing popular science is to push past the (imagined) sense of my peers and colleagues looking over my shoulder. I’ve written long pieces only to realize I’ve slipped into academic defensiveness and rambling details that do absolutely nothing to convey the story but respond to anticipated critical questions from my darling fellow scientists. Don’t do it. Write for your intelligent but non-scientific friends. If you don’t have any of those, write for the people who do your taxes or fix your plumbing.
Finished? Hand it over and take a deep breath for approximately two weeks. You still have edits, edits, copyedits, edits of the copyedits, page proofs, 2nd pass proofs, galley proofs, end matter, cover copy, cover design, author bio, author picture (ugh), and much more to come. A 12 month gap between when you thought it was over and a finished product is not unusual.
If you get asked to record the audio version of your book, do it. Yes it’s a few days of exhausting, throat rasping, sensory deprivation inside a triple-glazed sound booth, but you’ll discover that the written word is very different than the spoken word. All those grammatical flourishes and subtle punctuation marks that looked so good in silence now make your tongue twist and your words stumble. It’s hard, but it’s an amazing lesson.
If you are lucky your publisher will care enough to want to help promote and advertise your book. Do anything you can to be helpful. Don’t say ‘I’m unavailable for the next 12 months’, say instead ‘my soul is available for free’. Don’t imagine for an instant that your book will pop like some virtual particle-pair from the vacuum and produce its own successful universe. Nope. Your willingness to go to bat will be vital.
Start figuring out what exactly the book is all about. Yes, really. You might think you know, after all you just wrote it, but now imagine you’re live on air with a radio station on another continent and they’ve just asked you why XYZ is important, and you have 30 seconds to speak.
At the launch and post-launch. Ever go to a bookstore to listen to an author and get a book signed? No, me neither. But you’ll be doing this, sans Powerpoint, sans sleep. Practice talking without notes, practice reading a bit of your book, practice being a performer rather than a lecturer. Remember, your audience may have all been to the pub beforehand (if not, well they probably should have) and you want them to be intrigued enough to part with their hard earned money. Yes, it’s that simple, you have become a salesperson. It’s the good fight though, because you really believe in the scientific story you’ve told and the importance of other people hearing it, right?
Live radio interviews: By phone or remote studio – I don’t know why they think this makes it easy, but producers will play you the live feed before you go on air and speak over it to let you know when you’ll be on. It’s like listening to a brilliant conversation where you have to butt in at precisely the right time with your feeble thoughts. Work hard at removing ‘Um,’ ‘Err’. Figure out more than one way to start a response – ‘So,’ ‘Well,’ and ‘Good question,’ get old very, very quickly.
You may give some ‘proper’ presentations – with Powerpoint and the audio-visual works. Science museums or other venues do this, and there is a burgeoning number of science ‘clubs’ springing up. These are almost always great fun, with audiences who are already more or less on your side. Resist the temptation to talk about ‘the book’, instead give people a reason to want to go look at the book because they’re so excited about what they’ve just heard.
Buy good pens. On one of my first signings I pushed too hard with a substandard pen and tore a hole through the precious pages that a loyal reader had just forked over good money for. Not good. Keep pens handy at all times.
Be prepared to do all of the above in a book ‘tour’. This is publisher-speak for a punishing schedule of travel, talking, and signing. It is actually fun, but by the end of it you’ll have no idea which hotel/airport/city/state/country you’re actually in. And then it will all be over.
Keep promoting. There are physical laws determining a book’s life, as far as I can tell. There’s momentum at the start, and as more people actually read the book there is a chance of slowing the natural dissipation of that momentum. There is also randomness. You’ll probably feel like an orphan pressing their face up against the candy-store window as you see other books flare into bursts of glory, even though they’re about the ‘science’ of cat barf. I guess we all deal with these things differently, but remembering that your book is in it for the long haul can help (a good book deal will keep it in print for several years).
Reviews can be good, middling, and bad. Unlike writing peer-reviewed journal articles, there is little real opportunity to rebut what’s said about your precious words out in the cold harsh world. Having said that, I think there’s only been one instance where I really lost any sleep over an appallingly inaccurate and somewhat negative review (whose inaccuracy rather ironically was in its claimed inaccuracies of the book, which it quoted inaccurately…good grief). Take a deep breath, and remember your mother loved you as a baby.
As much as you may hate it, social media can be a writer’s best friend. Facebook lets you make pages for a book, Twitter accounts can be a way to promote your efforts, and all that Google+ stuff may be helpful, if you can figure out what it all means. But the biggest piece of advice, which is the same as with live presentations, is to make stuff intrinsically interesting if you can. I know I’ve succumbed to the ‘Buy this book’ use of Twitter after a depressing glance at my Amazon sales rank (don’t laugh, you’ll be following that obsessively too). It doesn’t really work. Tell your audience something interesting and useful, be that expert-on-call and things will go much better.
Got friends or acquaintances who work in the media world? Time to buy them a drink or compliment them on their latest piece of reality TV dross. Don’t expect anything to happen, but maybe you’ll end up in front of a camera and maybe a viewer will recognize your name on the shelf of their local bookstore or on an Amazon ‘recommends’ list.
If you’re at a university, let them know what you’ve been doing. Some places seem to jump to promote local talent. Even if the response is lukewarm, keep reminding them. Don’t feel dismayed that your colleagues are more popular as writers than you can reasonably hope to be (I inhabit the same campus as Brian Greene and Oliver Sacks, and Neil deGrasse Tyson is just down the road). Just keep working at it.
Finally. The book is on shelves, the reviews are in, and there might just possibly be a royalty check in the mail that’ll pay for your next haircut. It’s decision time. Was it worth it? Has inattention to your research program for the past year and a half produced ill-tempered students and a mountain of unprocessed data? Or do you have a desperate urge to keep writing, keep engaging with a public you’d forgotten existed until the past few months?
It’s your call. For me it’s a no-brainer, I’ll write and I’ll keep being a scientist. The only challenge is how to work 48 hour days when the universe conspires to cycle through day and night on Earth in only 24.
And yes, my new book will be out in 2014. See how I delayed mention of it? I even avoided saying that it’s called The Copernicus Complex, and that it’s all about a rip-roaring quest to discover our significance or insignificance in the cosmos, because it’s important to give your audience some substance instead of endless advertising….
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX