So you want to write a pop-sci book, Part 1: From idea to agent

Written in Stone

Writing a popular science book has simultaneously been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my writing career so far. It was not so much something that I wanted to do as a task that I needed to do, and without that sense of resolve Written in Stone would probably be a half-finished manuscript left to rot on my hard drive. While hard-headed persistence has been essential to writing my book, though, it was not the only thing I required, and through this blog conversation with David Williams (author of Stories in Stone; blog) and Michael Welland (author of Sand; blog) I hope to outline how a book goes from an idea to a proposal designed to pique the interest of publishers.

Step one is figuring out what your book is going to be about. This is not as easy as it might sound. Several years ago I decided that I wanted to write a book about evolution, but it took me about two years to figure out what kind of story I wanted to tell and how to tell it. (I still have a small collection of embarrassingly bad early drafts from when the project lacked direction.) I ultimately settled upon how paleobiology has altered our understanding of evolution by looking at our changing perceptions of seven of the most famous transitions in the vertebrate fossil record (specifically the origins early tetrapods, birds, early mammals, whales, elephants, horses, and humans), and this drawn out process taught me some important lessons about book writing.

The process of generating a book idea is similar to, if not ultimately the same as, coming up with an “elevator pitch.” You want to be able to articulate a specific idea that you are passionate about in a concise manner that will make the listener say “Really? Tell me more.” The subject should not be so broad that it would require textbook treatment (i.e. “evolution”, “genetics”, “physics”, “cosmology”) nor so narrow that it would be better presented in a blog post, essay, or short article. There is no hard and fast rule to tell the difference, but in order to write a solid popular science book you need to identify a story that can be told in about 200 to 300 pages without having to cut out any major details or inserting too much extra padding. (Famous writers such as Richard Dawkins can get away with heavier tomes, but first-time authors should probably keep things as concise as possible.)

Naturally your book idea should fill you with enthusiasm. If you are not excited by your chosen subject writing a book can quickly turn into a chore, and, should you actually complete the volume, who is going to want to read a book that you did not want to write in the first place? Indeed, when it comes to science writing the public is most interested in awe-inspiring stories about things they have probably never heard of before, so a passion for your book’s subject is required. To put it another way, you should be aiming to write the kind of book you would enjoy reading.

Yet there is one other threat which can stymie the book-idea-generating-process. There are plenty of other popular science books out there which cover a variety of fields, and you may discover that your book has already been written by someone else! This was a major concern for me, especially, since several books about the evidence for evolution have been published during the past few years, including Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, Why Evolution is True, Remarkable Creatures, and The Greatest Show on Earth. Not only was the market saturated with these kinds of books, but, as several publishers would later make clear, I just cannot compete with Richard Dawkins. Even though my book was markedly different from all those other titles, especially it’s emphasis on the history of science and the emergence of modern paleobiology, many publishers considered it to be too similar to books already written by more prominent authors, and that certainly hindered my agent’s ability to find a publisher for it.

But let’s say that, by one route or another, you have pinpointed a cracking idea for an original popular science book. What comes next is one of the most challenging phases of the entire writing process; drafting a proposal. This effort has two important consequences. First, writing a proposal forces you to summarize what your book is going to be about in an organized fashion, both in terms of the book’s main theme and the focus of each chapter. Secondly, it will serve as your introduction to agents and editors. It is the document that is going to (hopefully) convince them that your book needs to be published.

Much like college application essays, there are different ways to write a successful proposal, but there is one particular template that seems to work well (and represents the key elements agents and editors are looking for in a proposal). The sections you will want to include are:

I: Cover page

This should only contain the name of the book, your name, and your contact information. Keep it simple.

II: Summary

The summary is perhaps the most important part of your proposal. It is your opportunity to grab the attention of your reader and present the primary subject that ties the entire book together. As such it is best to keep it concise. I have seen different estimates for how long it should be (from a few paragraphs to under 10 pages), but regardless of length the summary is your opportunity to introduce your book as powerfully and succinctly as possible.

III: The Audience

Who is going to read your book? Is it aimed at academics, or will it be written for a lay audience? Is there a great deal of interest in this subject area, or is it more of a niche title? If the subject is often discussed in the news or in mass media, be sure to note that, as well.

IV: The Competition

Even if you have come up with a unique, original book idea chances are that there are similar titles already out there. List them in this section, along with how your book is distinct from them. This could make all the difference if you are writing a book that might seem similar to other recently-released titles, and while it is not wise to denigrate the work of other authors this space does provide an opportunity to highlight the advantages your book has over the other titles.

V: Publishing Details

This part is pretty straightforward. Simple list how long you expect the book to be (i.e. 80,000 words), the general layout of the chapters (why certain chapters come before others), the resources that will be used in researching the book, whether illustrations will be required, and when you expect the manuscript to be finished.

VI: About the Author

This is your chance to strut your stuff and show why you are uniquely qualified to write this particular book. List all relevant experience, from academic training/degrees to anything you have published before, and don’t forget to mention your blog!

VII: Table of Contents

List the chapters of your book in order.

VIII: Chapter summaries

Write up brief overviews (a few paragraphs to a page long) of each chapter. Explain the main argument presented in each section and make it clear how they build up to the book’s conclusion. It can be difficult to write summaries for chapters that have not actually been written yet, but it is nonetheless an important exercise.

IX: Sample Chapters

Unlike a fiction writer, you will not be submitting a completed manuscript for review. Instead most nonfiction agents and editors want to see between one and three sample chapters. This allows them to gauge how you write, and if they decide to work with you they may have some suggestions about changes to the chapters or the entire book. Do not feel obliged to write the sample chapters in sequential order, though. When I submitted my proposal I included the chapters on the origins of whales, birds, and humans as I thought those would best capture the attention of agents and editors.

It is important that you keep working on your proposal until you are happy with it (you don’t want to fire off a half-finished pitch and make excuses for it later), but once you have it together it is time to find a literary agent. This can be difficult, but it is not as daunting as you might think. The first thing to do is use your connections. Do you know any published authors or science writers? Ask them about their agents or if they know of any who might be looking for new clients. Once you have done that have a look at the “Acknowledgments” sections of popular science books you like or that are in the same genre as yours. Many authors thank their agents, and with a little Google-fu it is easy to track down those literary agencies.

Before sending off an e-mail, though, make sure you look at the agent’s webpage. It will tell you if they are open to hearing from new clients and the best way to reach them. Some will want the entire proposal over e-mail, others might want a query letter (a short summary of the book project) sent through snail-mail, and still others might want something else entirely. You want to make a good first impression, so it is important to pay attention to detail.

I was fortunate enough to have my agent approach me about my book (thanks to a kind referral by a friend), but things don’t always work out that way. You may have to wait to hear back from agents, and it can be a very long wait, indeed. In fact, I sent out a query letter to one agent, heard nothing back for weeks, and ended up signing with my present agent only to have that first agent eventually get back to me to say that she was interested in my book. Patience and persistence are the virtues that will get you through this time, and with any luck an agent will want to discuss your book further with you after reading your proposal.

All of this is assuming that you want to go with the “traditional” publishing route. These days it is easier than ever to self-publish a book, but while I considered doing so I ultimately decided against it. First, I knew that my book would be of interest to readers of this blog, but who else would read it? I wanted to reach a wider audience, and signing with a publishing house seemed like the best way to do that as I do not have the time to promote my book/arrange the distribution of my book entirely by myself. Second, I knew that my book needed some help. I wanted the input of an experienced agent and editor to help me shape Written in Stone into the best book it could be, and I strongly believe that the manuscript has greatly benefited from their professional suggestions. True, I could have hired an editor to have a look at the manuscript, but I was unsure about the quality of input I would get from an independent editor who was not personally invested in seeing my book succeed. Third, my agent is an expert at brokering international distribution deals, and that is something I could not have done on my own. Thanks to him Written in Stone will be translated into Japanese, and with any luck more international deals will coalesce during the coming months. (Still keeping my fingers crossed for a UK release.)

But, for the sake of this post, let’s assume that you have successfully found an agent. Your agent will work with you to improve your pitch, which they will then send to relevant publishing houses, but you never know what publishers might say. It is an emotionally draining time for an author. During this part of the process I had some publishers say “We would love to publish this, but there’s just no money in paleontology right now” while others would not even consider publishing the book since I am not a professional scientist. Still others seemed to show interest only to change their mind, such as a publisher who asked me to come to New York to discuss my book only to reject it weeks later because they thought it was too similar to The Link (the ultimate indignity). Perhaps the most frustrating experience of all occurred late in the summer when I spent an entire weekend responding to the criticisms of an academic reviewer who had critiqued my proposal for an academic press. The editor responded extremely positively to my defense of my work, yet a few weeks later it came back that I was the wrong author for the book, the book’s subject was wrong, and it was the wrong time to publish it, anyway. All of this was just part of the book publishing business, but knowing that did not do much to ease my frustration.

The unfortunate truth was that I was not very marketable. I did not have the authority of a professional scientist, nor did I have the experience of a seasoned science writer, so even publishing houses that liked my work decided not to publish it because they did not know how to make my book profitable. Who wanted to hear from a no-name writer from the middle of New Jersey? No one. Indeed, it was the old chicken-and-the-egg problem of writing. I did not have enough credibility because I had not published enough, but I had a helluva time trying to gain credibility since no one would publish me. Thankfully Bellevue Literary Press decided to give me the chance to prove myself, but it was still difficult to see so many publishers turn down Written in Stone simply because I could not print Ph.D. after my name.

You can see why passion and perseverance are two virtues that any hopeful author must have. Conceiving of a book project, pitching it to an agent, and trying to convince editors that it is worth publishing is a challenging process which can be as emotionally draining as it is satisfying. Finding a home for your book is just one part of the bookwriting process, however, and in the next entries in this discussion David, Michael, and I will be talking about how we went about writing each of our books.

For more, see Michael Welland’s first contribution to the discussion here and David Williams’ post here.

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