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So you want to write a science book?

UK Conference of Science Journalism

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  1. I attended the UK Conference on Science Journalists yesterday. I want to say from the outset that - as well as being an excellent opportunity to hone my Teeline shorthand skills -  the entire day was extremely useful, both in terms of my development as a writer and as a professional. 

    I'll write up a few of the sessions over the next few day, but the one that got me most excited was the session on writing a science book.   
  2. Chaired by Anjana Ahuja, herself a published science author and journalist, the session brought together an agent (Peter Tallack of  sciencefactory.co.uk/), Richard Lea of the Guardian Books Desk, and best selling Author Carl Zimmer, who joined us by video link. 
  3. First, some of Carl's thoughts on why he wrote his first book. the most important driver is passion. At Discover magazine, Carl was researching stories about evolution for long features, but he wanted more space and time to develop the stories. 
  4. Carl's passion was evident - and he warned the audience several times through the session that we should write (books) for pleasure rather than profit. Something that Peter Tallack echoed:
  5. I fact he specifically said "you're never going to be adequately compensated for writing a book" (if I can read my shorthand correctly!)
  6. The panel had some useful guidance for rookie authors, about researching the market, finding a publisher, and whether or not we should go it alone. Carl Zimmer's take was an unequivocal "no."
  7. Peter Tallack echoed this sentiment as well. Before you say "well he would, wouldn't he?" let me give you what, for me at least, was his killer argument. 

    "[By self publishing] you remove one barrier (finding an agent) but create another one (finding an audience)" 

    The consensus among the panel was that self-publishing works best if you already have a connection to an audience. 

  8. Peter was very happy to share his experience of what makes a good proposal (thinking, I suppose, that if he has to read them they might as well be good!)

    The opening pitch: up to 20 pages that outline the "dust jacket copy", the synopsis, and the sales pitch. This is the point at which you have to grab an agent's attention. The best pitches are:

    - important
    - original
    - urgent (or at least topical)
    - surprising
    - novel
    - credible

    The proposed market:  you need to persuade the agent that people will buy your book, that you know who the competition is, and that there is space for your book on the market.

    A chapter breakdown: with a short synopsis of each chapter.

    At least one sample chapter: but don;t write the whole book. For a start, the agent doesn't have time to read the whole book.  But also, as Anjana says:
  9. Don't come with a "finished product" - there are a lot of people in the production chain - the editor chief among them - who will help you to develop it.

    Also - a tip for the academics: don't be afraid to editorialise her. Agents and publishers want to hear your voice in the writing, and they want your "take" on the subject too.:
  10. Your platform: showcase any links you have with societies, publications, organisations or events that might help you sell the book. Publishers (and according to Carl Zimmer, US publishers in particular) are very keen on authors that bring an audience from social media with them. Carl thought this might have gone too far when he received the first copies of his new book, Science Ink. The "belly band" had not only his twitter handle but the url of his Facebook page too.

    Blogging as an entrée also received this caveat: 
  11. Keeping in mind the comments earlier about rates of compensation for book writing, this piece of advice from Peter was not unexpected:
  12. The market can be brutal - especially when it comes to finding an audience:
  13. But an audience definitely exists:
  14. According to Richard, Bill Bryson's book still beats all-comers in the science market place, but shortly behind we have:
    - The New Scientist Question Collections (Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze and so on)
    - The God Delusion (which he argued is not really a science book...)
    - Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
    - Brian Cox's books on cosmology and quantum physics. 
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