Ever thought about writing a popular science book or rewriting and communicating your research in a more popular scientific way in general? As a researcher, I have always found this being an essential part of the academic mission and have during grad school and as an ECR been writing popular science books alongside peer-reviewed articles. Despite this being part of the third mission of academia (something that I have written about in a previous post), most of us have to do this on our free time with no help from our employer. Some guidance is therefore needed in how to communicate your science through a more accessible book format than your dissertation. Anyway, as I thought of writing a “how to” guide on writing a popular science book, I stumbled upon an excellent blog post on exactly this subject by SciComm’s own Bill Sullivan. By request, I got his permission to repost his guide to our ECR audience as well. I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.
Want to Write a Popular Science Book? Here’s What You Need to Know
Whether you’re a scientist who wants to communicate their findings to a broader audience or a science enthusiast who is eager to tell the world about mind-blowing discoveries and ideas, one of the best ways to reach the masses is through a popular science book. If you have cool science stories to tell, and the enthusiasm to tell them, how can you turn this knowledge and energy into a book that publishers will want to sell? Before you settle in to write your tome at the local coffee shop, here are four questions you need to ask yourself.
- Are you ready to write a book?
I don’t know too many people who have been able to leap right into book writing without dipping their foot into other forums first. Writing for blogs, magazines, newspapers, or other media is critically important for three reasons. One, the more you write, the better writer you become. Two, writing for these venues helps you develop your style, find your voice, and build a portfolio of your work. Third, it is important to grow a platform, an audience of people who enjoy your writing and look forward to your next piece.
You also need to scrutinize the readiness of your idea—it may need to ripen a while longer or it may be stale. Great ideas for books are surprisingly common, so it is wise to check if anyone else has written about the subject. If no, great! (Unless it’s because the subject matter is unlikely to arouse public interest.) If someone else has written about your bright idea, did it perform well? Were people interested? How is your work going to add or distinguish itself from something already on the shelves? If too many people have already written about your idea, the market might be too saturated to support another book on the topic.
Finally, you have to really LOVE your topic. Make sure it’s not just a crush—you need to be truly, madly, deeply in love with the subject. You will be spending upwards of two years on this book, sacrificing huge chunks of time to complete the research, interviews, writing, re-writing, and more re-writing. Not only does your heart need to be in it, but so does your head. Do you have sufficient time to craft a book worth reading? If you have doubts, you may want to Marie Kondo your life to free up time that can be used exclusively for writing.
- Do you know how to communicate science to a general audience?
If you’re a scientist, you’re accustomed to talking to other scientists. But if a nonscientist overheard your conversation, you probably sound like Charlie Brown’s parents to their ears. You can be the world’s expert in your field, but that alone is not what sells lots of books.
There are lots of terrific resources on how to become a more effective science communicator. Check out The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, The Art of Science Communication course offered by ASBMB, Randy Olson’s blog and books, and PLOS SciComm. Key take home messages from these resources include the following. 1) Engage the reader with a compelling narrative, not a bunch of dry charts and graphs. 2) Dispense with the jargon and abbreviations that scientists love—use plain English and analogies to describe complex concepts. 3) Never assume the reader has your level of expertise (it may have been a long time since they had a science class). 4) You may be tempted to use a lot of fancy words and long sentences to showcase your intelligence or authority, but that sort of language often comes across as confusing or, worse, condescending. 5) Avoid bogging your reader down in extraneous details that are not relevant to the point you are trying to make.
- Do you need a literary agent?
There are three major ways to publish a popular science book: on your own (self-publishing), through an academic press, or with a commercial publisher. There are pros and cons to each of these options that are beyond the scope of this article, but the bottom line is that a literary agent is needed to reach the big league publishers. Most commercial publishers will not look at a proposal unless it is sent by an agent.
But a good literary agent will do much more than get your foot in the door with commercial publishers. An agent will help you develop and polish the book proposal (see next question), offer editorial suggestions, help you refine ideas for the book, help you build a platform, and—very important—help you navigate the legalese of publishing contracts. If you forego an agent, you should at least hire a lawyer to look over any contracts you’re given. A good agent is also helpful in selling the rights of your book to foreign publishers, which brings in additional revenue. Be aware that agents do not do all this hard work for free, of course. The average rate charged by a literary agent is 15 percent.
How do you find an agent? There are many lists and databases that you can survey to find literary agents who are suited to your project (for example, PublishersMarketplace.com). The trick I used to find the needle in the haystack was to read the Acknowledgements section of books that were similar to the one I wanted to write—that is the section where authors mention their agent. This not only helps you compile a list of potential agents who are best equipped to handle your project, but it also allows you to tailor your query letter to the agent.
- Do you know how to write a book proposal?
Whether you acquire an agent or not, you need to have a fully developed book proposal to pitch your idea for the book. Do not write the entire book yet because some of the concepts and its organization are likely to change as you get input from others.
Here are the key components to a nonfiction book proposal:
I. Title page
This is the easiest part…or is it? Popular science books usually have a main title and a subtitle, and both should communicate the theme of the book in a clever and enticing way that clearly indicates the book’s theme.
A concise, one-page summary of the book’s primary thesis. It needs to have a good hook. If this section doesn’t make a stranger want to read your book, you need to rework it. Remember, agents and publishers get way more proposals than they can handle, so every sentence must captivate.
III. About the Author
Time to put your credentials on display and explain why you are qualified to write the book. Here is where you can also mention the platform you’ve worked hard to build; for example, how many people subscribe to your blog, how many pageviews do your articles get, how many people follow you on social media. You can also include a professional photo and list of select writings in this section.
IV. Target Audience
Who do you think is going to read this book? Describe all the potential audiences that would be interested in the subject matter, and try to provide numbers wherever possible.
V. Competitive Analysis
Identify five or six books on a similar topic that have performed well. This communicates to the agent and publisher that you are writing about a marketable topic. But there’s a catch. You also need to explain what separates your book from the others.
VI. Publicity and Marketing
This section should convey that you are willing and able to help promote the book if it is published. List high-profile magazines, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, video channels, or blogs that would be open to helping you promote the book. You can include personal appearances at universities, bookstores, libraries, or science-related events. If you have personal contacts who would be able to promote your book and/or write an endorsement, here is where you do the name-dropping.
VII. Table of Contents
List the chapter titles you intend to include. You’ll write summaries in Section IX, so just the titles here. Each chapter title should succinctly state what that chapter is going to address in the context of the overarching topic.
VIII. Manuscript Specifications
In this section, state how many words you expect the book to contain. First authors typically shoot for 250 pages, which works out to about 75,000 words. Also specify who will do the artwork (if no artwork will be needed, say so). Finally, state your delivery date for the completed manuscript (12-18 months is standard).
IX. Chapter Summaries
Include a short (one to two paragraph) summary of each chapter. Be sure to emphasize how the chapter’s contents relate to the overall thesis of the book.
X. Sample Chapter(s)
A good sample chapter should not only exemplify the content, but also your voice and style. If you bring something unique to the table, here is the chance to let it shine. Pay attention to the submission guidelines: sometimes they will ask for two or three chapters.
For more details, you should consult one of the many excellent resources for writing a killer book proposal (for example, The Art of the Book Proposal by Eric Maisel).
If all of this looks daunting, it should be. Writing a book is not a walk in the park and the book proposal is a good test of your readiness to become an author. As you can see, you not only need to give deep thought to the book’s content, but you also have to explain why you are qualified to write about the subject and how you are going to sell it. If you complete these four questions, you have taken the initial steps along a very exciting path that leads to the publication of your first masterpiece.
Bill Sullivan is author of “Pleased To Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are” (National Geographic Books). He is the Showalter Professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, where he studies infectious disease and genetics. Bill has published nearly 100 papers in scientific journals and written for National Geographic, Scientific American, Scientific American MIND, Discover, COSMOS, Psychology Today, and more. He’s appeared on CNN, Fox & Friends, The Doctors, Science Fantastic with Michio Kaku, and more. Bill received his Ph.D. in Molecular & Cell Biology from the University of Pennsylvania. More info at www.AuthorBillSullivan.com, or follow him on Twitter at @wjsullivan.