This is an adaptation of an older post from when my first book was published. Still relevant though… I decided to make this a series of 3-4 posts prompted by a suggestion from a friend and colleague who asked me if I would consider posting something about my experiences as an academic who also writes popular science books. Here’s the first one…
DISCLAIMER: I am no insider of the publishing industry and what worked for me may not work for everyone…
PRELUDE: As far as I know, the only “brick and mortar” bookstore that carried my first book, “The First Brain: The Neuroscience of Planarians” is the (sadly not in business anymore) Chester County Book Company. I will forever be thankful to them… It was a great feeling seeing it in a bookshelf there (:-). The physical book is of course available online and is also available as an ebook.
I am happy that my second book, Strange Survivors: How Organisms Attack and Defend in the Game of Life found its way to a few bookstores, including several Barnes and Noble stores and university bookstores, but I am especially proud of the fact that it’s being carried by my local brick and mortar independent boosktore: Hockessin Bookshelf. Please be on the lookout for a book signing and talk coming soon! The physical book is also available online and as an ebook as well.
Incidentally, if you have read either book, would you kindly consider posting a review at the “-azon” site? I obviously want to hear the things you might have liked about them, but I am deeply interested on how I can improve my craft. At any rate, reviews do help spread the word about my books. Thanks in advance!
Incidentally, I am not a science writer, I am a scientist who writes…
Here we go!
I have thought about the factors that converged to make The First Brain and Strange Survivors a reality. There were a lot of things that had to happen, but here’s the main 11 “nuggets of wisdom” that I have for you today. Maybe you are thinking about writing a popsci book. These worked for me; I hope they will help you! These 11 factors apply mostly to The First Brain. In the next post, I will tell you more about Strange Survivors and my upcoming Drunk Flies and Stoned Dolphins…
1. Take up blogging. I have told you where I got the blogging advice from in this post. It truly was the first and likely the most important advice that I got. It allowed me to gain writing experience and confidence. It also allowed me to test the proverbial waters to see if readers would actually want to read me. And some did! So thank you, faithful readers…
2. Write about something you really know about. I know science, I know neuroscience, I know pharmacology, and I know planarians. For the first three, I have formal training; for the fourth, I have practical, direct experience doing research with these critters (and I’ve written a few papers on the subject, among other subjects). This is not to say that I know everything about these topics, but I knew enough to know exactly where to look to learn about the things I did not know (does this make sense?).
3. Formal education in the area that you want to write about undoubtedly helps. It is true that there are many talented science writers out there, writers who sometimes do not have formal science training. However, they have built their careers by honing their craft in magazine articles, newspaper columns, etc. A person like me (and many other academics) followed a different career path, a path that until very recently advocated for a style of writing *very* different from the approach needed to write popular science. Also, most of us are far from famous, so the recognition factor is not there. Therefore, the magical letters after your name (Ph.D.) will get the attention of certain publishers, especially if your degrees are in the relevant area. Mine are in biochemistry, pharmacology, and neurobiology (but see below).
3a. Your degrees are worth next to nothing if you do not make an effort to write well or if you are not willing to follow the advice of experienced editors. Good editors are worth their weight in gold times ten, and you, as a budding author must be willing to recognize their expertise, period.
4. LOVE your chosen topic (s). I had to. It is simply not possible (at least for me) to craft a 200+ page book on topics I do not like.
5. Read… a lot. Besides being an essential trait to be able to efficiently look for any required information, an avid reader gets a sense of how to write well from the really greats of the craft. I my case, I read A LOT of popular science, from Sagan to Dawkins via Gould, as well as many others. That said, I have a few select favorites.
6. Begin by inquiring academic presses about proposal submissions instructions. Usually academic presses accept proposals directly from the authors, without an agent involved. I don’t have one (yet…(;-)…). I simply have the attitude of “If I do not ask, there is a 0 % chance that they will say ‘yes’…“, and as you know, this attitude paid off!
7. Craft the book proposal with great care. I treated it like a report to be graded, following the specific instructions, etc. Again, here your degrees will count for nothing if you do not follow instructions.
8. Be alert to random yet significant events. By sheer chance, I met a “coffee shop friend” who turned out to be a senior editor at a BIG academic publishing company. He gave me invaluable advice in navigating through contracts, etc… You see why is a great thing to be friendly and talk to people?
9. Write at every possible opportunity. I intended to honor my deadline (I did!) and I adhered to a consistent yet flexible schedule. Also, I always carried a small notebook to write ideas as they occurred to me.
10. Have awesome people on your side. Once the book was written I was fortunate to count on very talented editors and indexers. Their advice certainly improved the product. Literally closer to home, it is great to have a family that supports you (take a look at the The First Brain dedication and acknowledgments section to see why).
11. Have wonderful people who can help in many other ways. From the friend and colleague who came up with the book’s title to the friend and fellow blogger who read the whole thing and gave me invaluable advice; my brother, who drew many of the figures, and a series of colleagues whom I interviewed over the phone or email. I was also blessed with people who sent me unique materials that simply enriched the book or helped me in other ways, as in translating Japanese papers into English. To all of you, thanks!
12. Be aware that there is a significant element of luck involved in the process. As George of the Jungle would say: “I’m just lucky, I guess…” (:-D)
The are certainly more factors, of which will tell you about as I articulate them in upcoming posts. For example, I will try to explore what can you expect (the good, the bad, and the ugly) when you decide to write a book. Please tell me what you think/what would you like to know more about… Talk to you soon!
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