So You Want to Write a Book?

Advice on authoring a textbook, popular nonfiction, or even a novel

Oct 1, 2012
Jef Akst

To a working scientist, the idea of writing a book can seem daunting. Is it possible to squeeze in writing on top of the research, teaching, and administrative responsibilities that already fill up the day? But many scientists can, and do, author books, whether they be textbooks, nonfiction for a general audience, or other literary departures from the usual grant proposals, research manuscripts, and review articles.

“It’s infinitely more work than you think, and it’s also much more satisfying,” says Anne Houtman, a behavioral ecologist and head of the School of Life Sciences at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who co-authored the textbook Environmental Science for a Changing World. “I’ve published a lot of papers, but there’s something different about holding a book in your hand,” she adds.

Sometimes books come out of teaching a course for which there is no suitable textbook. Or maybe there’s something you’ve always been curious about that you want to explore more deeply than your own research allows. “I wrote about the mystery of altruism,” says Oren Harman, chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and the author of The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the best science book of 2010 and was featured in The Scientist, September 2011). “This is an issue I had been thinking about since I was a kid,” he says. “I found that kind of passion to be a great way to embark upon a writing project.”

The Scientist spoke with researchers turned authors, science journalists, book publishers, and even the editors who hold significant sway over the book you’ll end up writing. Here’s what they had to say.

Are you ready to write a book?


Wait for tenure
For the purposes of a tenure committee, books are not considered peer-reviewed publications. Even though textbooks are often “more peer-reviewed than anything you’ll ever write again in your life,” Houtman says—“every single chapter is reviewed by a dozen academics,” in addition to editors—the work is not considered peer-reviewed, and therefore doesn’t count toward tenure at most institutions.

 

Plus, adds Michael G. Fisher, executive editor for science and medicine at Harvard University Press, writing a book takes up so much time, “people will wonder why you aren’t doing research.”

Start small
If you’re interested in writing for a more general audience, one way to test the waters is to write shorter pieces, such as essays for The Chronicle of Higher Education (or The Scientist), op-eds for newspapers, or even book reviews for journals. “It’s a way to kind of exercise those muscles,” says University of Minnesota evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk, the author of several popular science books, most recently Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World, from which she adapted an essay for the January 2012 issue of The Scientist. “You should know that you like doing that kind of writing, and you should be able to do it in a way that people are going to find interesting.”

Those interested in writing textbooks can also start small by writing individual chapters in edited books, adds Harvey Pough of the Rochester Institute of Technology, who has written several higher-level textbooks, including Vertebrate Life, the most widely used textbook for vertebrate zoology courses.

Prepare for endless edits
If you’re thinking about writing a textbook, keep in mind that it may never really be finished. Many textbooks, especially at the  introductory level, require regular updating. “Most biology textbooks are on a 3-year cycle,” Houtman says. “That’s good and that’s bad.” On the one hand, “if it does well and you keep doing editions, then you have a revenue stream for a really long time. . . . This can be your retirement,” she says. “But that also means that as soon as you put it to press, it’s time to start preparing for the next edition.”

Getting started


Read
You should read not only how-to tomes, but books that exemplify your intended genre. This is particularly true if you want to write for a general audience, says Zuk, who is often surprised to find colleagues who are interested in writing a popular book, but have not read any. “‘Why would I have read them?’” Zuk recalls people asking. “‘I’m not part of that popular audience.’” But to get a feel for what a general audience likes, you have to become a part of it.

 

One of Zuk’s first editors suggested she read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. “She said, ‘Never mind the content; read it for the way he moves from very general comments to concrete examples and back, and how he structures that within each chapter, because he’s really good at that,’” Zuk recalls. “She was right; it really helped.”

Write daily
Psychologist Robert Boice, who authored Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing in 1990, did studies showing “that people who write every day produce vastly more, even if it’s only for 20 minutes,” says Houtman. “You don’t have the startup angst.”

Join a writing club
A good way to motivate yourself is to write with colleagues, who can not only help review your work, but can hold you accountable for keeping on schedule. “I’ve got a room booked from 9 to 11 every Tuesday and Thursday, and the rule is: we come in with our laptops; we don’t talk; we just write,” says Houtman. “Because if you don’t protect some time for writing, everything else fills it in.”

Write a proposal
Before you start looking for a publisher, you generally have to write a proposal. Different publishers and agents have different guidelines to follow, but generally, they’re looking for: a) a substantial introduction explaining the concept for the book, why it’s important, and what the market is (and what’s already on the market), as well as your contribution in terms of expertise or experience; b) a couple of sample chapters; and c) an annotated table of contents with a paragraph or two about each of the other chapters. Additional information on how you will help market the book can also be helpful.

But writing a proposal is important not just for the sake of finding a publisher; it should be considered an important exercise of book authorship. “If you do enough rigorous digging, you will have a better sense of how much is there for you and if there is enough for a book,” says Hilary Redmon, executive editor at Ecco, an imprint of publisher HarperCollins. “A carefully edited proposal serves the writer very well in writing the book.”

Perfecting your prose


Be open to edits
An important part of book writing is editing. During the process, “you have to be able to hear criticism and be responsive,” Houtman says.

 

“Editors help with that,” says Zuk, who has thrown out entire introductions and begun them anew. “Just because you think it is something that someone absolutely has to know, it’s not necessarily the case.” Plus, Fisher adds, it’s better to hear those comments when you can still address them “than to see the criticisms assaulting you” in book reviews after you’ve published.

Work with a science writer
For textbook writing in particular, it’s often helpful to hire a science journalist who has more writing experience and often more practice communicating with a general audience. “I love working with science writers,” says Houtman, who collaborated with a Scientific American writer on a biology textbook for non-majors. “I learn so much from them about ‘just do it.’ They’re used to deadlines; they just get it done.”

Know your market
Particularly when writing textbooks, it’s important to know “who the competitors are, and how you would best them,” says Karen Hopkin, a freelance science writer who has been working for 12 years with Bruce Alberts, Martin Raff, and other biology big wigs on the widely used graduate textbook Molecular Biology of the Cell and its undergraduate version, Essential Cell Biology. This might include adding interactive features, such as quizzes at the end of each chapter, notes Hopkin, a regular contributor to The Scientist. “Is that your life passion? No, but if it’s useful for the users of the book, then you give it to them, and that makes your book more marketable.”

Getting Published


Know your options
Self-publish
Ask yourself why you’re publishing the book. “If it’s a bucket-list thing, then self-publish it,” says Chris Snook, editor-in-chief at the No Limit Publishing Group. “Why would you wait in line for 2 years to get rejected by 100 people when it’s something important to you, and you just want to do it? Self-publish it, and just determine what kind of budget you’re willing to spend to do it.”

 

Academic Presses 
One of the biggest advantages to going with a university press is the feedback you’ll get. “That’s what an academic publisher provides,” says Fisher. Every book published by Harvard University Press is subject to peer review and must be approved by a board of academics before hitting the presses.

University presses can also be easier to work with, and don’t require working through an agent, as commercial publishers often do. “I would recommend university presses” for a first book, says Zuk.

Commercial Publishers
If you’re looking to reach a wide audience, and maybe make a little money while you’re at it, a commercial publisher is probably the best way to go. “If you’re talking commercial publishers, it can get into six figures,” Fisher says. “University presses rarely go that high.” Commercial publishers also tend to have closer relationships with bookstores and other sellers that can help publicize your book, Zuk adds.

Going with an established publisher can also help you publish more books down the road, notes Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University and author of Cold-Blooded Kindness, a case study of a female murderer. “If you can pursue the route to standard publication, not self-publish, that gives you a leg up on pretty much anything you might want to do in the future.” (See an essay cowritten by Oakley based on Pathological Altruism, which she coedited, and an online excerpt from the book in The Scientist’s February 2012 issue.)

As for which publisher to go with, take a look at their books and find one that seems like a good fit. “There’s a benefit to being in amongst books that are like yours, where your publisher has established a reputation for publishing books like yours,” says Fisher. “Editors will have a better sense of what’s been published in that area, [and] the potential audience.”

Get an agent
If you’re penning a novel, it’s best to get an agent. Though it will cost a little money—agents charge up to 15 percent of a deal with a publisher (and more for foreign editions)—it’s often worth it. Most commercial publishers will only work with you if you have one, but “increasingly, agents are [pitching to] university presses” as well, says Zuk.

One advantage to having an agent is his or her ability to get a foot in the door. “Agents are people that we have gotten to know over the years. They have an understanding of our taste, we have an understanding of their taste and the kind of writers they work with, so we trust them,” says publisher Redmon. “So if  ‘X’ agent sends me something, and I like that agent, I’m going to read it overnight.”

Beyond that, agents can help you refine your ideas and edit your proposal, and they help negotiate the contract. “Everything’s negotiable in a contract,” Fisher says. “Agents are fighting every element of the contract that takes some of the rights away from the author.”

Finding an agent often comes through a recommendation from a colleague. If you’re searching on your own, look for those who have handled books similar to yours; they will likely be the best to find you a good book deal, Redmon says.

Get a lawyer
Once you’ve found a publisher that’s willing to strike a deal with you, especially if you’re working without an agent, hire a lawyer before you sign anything. “In the U.K. you can join The Society of Authors for £75, and they’ll then go through your contract,” says Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield, author of The Wisdom of Birds. (See his essay in The Scientist, March 2011.) “The contracts are written by the publisher’s lawyers,” says Houtman. “It doesn’t protect the writer, necessarily, as well as it protects the publisher.” One clause to be wary of, for example, is one in which the publisher is claiming rights to your future work. “They state that really broadly, which could really hamper you if you’re not careful,” she says.