SciWri21 highlight: “So you want to write a book”

By Jaime Cordova

The step from writing science articles to a science book is more like a giant leap. “Writing a book can be sort of mystical especially if you don’t know anyone who has written a book” said science writer Rebecca Boyle (@rboyle31) during the “So you want to write a book” session of ScienceWriters 2021. Boyle with co-organizer, and fellow writer, Kate Gammon (@kategammon) hosted authors Christie Aschwanden (@cragcrest), Erika Hayasaki (@erikahayasaki), and Peter Brannen (@PeterBrannen1) to talk about the book writing process.

To publish a book, a prospective author needs to write a book proposal and market it to publishers, but how does one know if their idea is worthy of a book? Hayasaki described that this usually comes after the book proposal has been written and pitched to editors. After a proposal is submitted, it may get picked up or an editor may recommend it to be a short piece instead, she said.

To market the proposal, the panelists strongly recommend working with an agent as they not only have established relationships with publishers but will also help the author in shaping ideas. Additionally, an agent is acting as the author’s advocate, including negotiating the best payout possible. To find an agent, Brannen recommended finding books in the topic that you’re looking to write about and determining who that author’s agent is. Boyle noted, however, that when publishing through a university press, an agent may not be necessary.

What about money and time dedicated to the manuscript? A publishing house provides the author an advance to work on the book. The panelists noted that not only can its amount vary (see Publisher’s Lunch for daily advance posts), but it also comes in payments until the book is published, therefore an author shouldn’t expect this to be enough money to rely on as a sole income. It was recommended to look for grants and fellowships to help pay for the research labor. Since new authors do tend to keep their day jobs, Aschwanden pointed out the importance of setting aside weeks to months at a time both to focus solely on the book and to step away from writing.

The panelists shared that a major pitfall about writing a book is the commitment, both of time and to the project. They noted the significant amount of time that will need to be invested, because it can take years to write a book. Aschwanden noted that while it can feel overwhelming, it’s important to trust the process and understand that it’s going to take some time. “You really do have to develop the obsession” she said, “if this isn’t a topic you want to sit with for multiple years at a time…it’s probably not the right book for you.”

After the manuscript has been submitted, the panelists noted the importance of establishing a good relationship with the right editor as each one will have a different style. Hayasaki pointed out, that it is good to have lots of edits because it means that the editor did focus and spend their time on it.

Thinking about writing a book? NASW members have access to a variety of resources on the book writing process at https://www.nasw.org/article/write-book. Authors can find fact-checking resources through the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT at https://ksj.mit.edu/resources/.

Jaime Cordova is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in Genetics with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. Follow him on Twitter @jaimecor_94 or email him at jaime.cordova@wisc.edu.

Hero image by Andrzej Rembowski from Pixabay.

Oct. 19, 2021