This session had a practical focus, looking at whether to self-publish (conclusion: maybe), using social media (yes, but having thousands of blog readers doesn’t mean you have a good book), what makes a good book (it’s a ‘wicked problem’), writing a book proposal, whether to quit your day-job (probably not), comparing fiction and non-fiction, and the all-important question of whether or not to write a book.

The panel was chaired by Anjana Ahuja, a freelance science writer, and the speakers were Peter Tallack, a book agent and founder of the Science Factory; Richard Lea, writer and editor at Guardian Books; and Carl Zimmer, science book author and journalist who joined the others via live video link.

The panel members play different roles in the publishing world, but all agreed that having passion for your subject is critical. In the audience there were about 15 people who want to write a book or have already begun.

With e-books and self-publishing on the rise, Tallack said he felt like a gatekeeper, but with “lots of little gates in a big field with no fences”. Authors no longer need publishers to get their books out. Ahuja said she is considering self-publishing and so did a handful of other audience members. But Zimmer said he would not do it because it is too easy to “disappear into oblivion”.

The panel agreed that authors are expected to do a lot of publicizing themselves, seeking out and suggesting target audiences to their publishers.

According to Tallack, the big trade publishers like Penguin and Harper Collins only publish about one science book per year. What they are looking for is an important, original, urgent or surprising topic with a new angle, and the author should be credible and passionate. Lea said: “You need an arresting idea that you are passionate enough to tell [about] at book length”.

Towards the end of the session, the panel asked if any audience members had current projects they wanted to talk about. One audience member talked very enthusiastically about her idea for a book on the science of swearing. Zimmer pointed out that the book had promise because of the author’s obvious passion for her topic.

So, should you write a book? According to Lea: “If you know why you want to do it, go ahead and just do it. If someone buys it, even better.” For Zimmer, there is nothing more satisfying than getting your printed books in the mail. He said: “You have to want to see that book exist”.

Catie Lichten, UKCSJ student scholar