How do you stand out from the crowd, in an industry that churns out 200,000 books annually in the UK alone? Who is going to care about your work, especially in a niche genre like science, which represents only 2% of non-fiction sold by volume?
The answer proposed by Richard Lea of Guardian Books, is found by looking at the five bestselling science books of the last ten years. In at number one is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, with two million copies sold. Next follow a couple of New Scientist questions books, such as Does Anything Eat Wasps? Then The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (which is not really a ‘science’ book). Rounding off the list is Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. More recently, Brian Cox heads the list for bestselling author of the past year.
The backgrounds of the authors are very revealing. In Bill Bryson, you have a hugely successful travel writer bringing his audience with him to science. You have academics who not only have the authority garnered from being respected in their fields, but who have also become celebrities in their own right through appearances on TV (Brian Cox), or public battles with religious extremists (Richard Dawkins). Ben Goldacre is another academic, who had a great idea and an audience cultivated from his popular blog on The Guardian. Finally New Scientist is a successful brand, which it used to promote a fun idea that appeals to readers’ curiosity.
So you must be either a celebrity or a respected academic, preferably both, if you want to hit the big time. Neither is really an option for a journalist or a science communicator, but there is hope in the final missing ingredient, a brilliant idea.
And it appeared that everyone in the room had their own brilliant idea for a book: when asked for a show of hands, about 20 people, or a third of the audience, were seriously considering writing a book.
The advice from the panel was practical: Make sure your idea is important, original, topical and authoritative, with a surprising new angle advises Peter Tallack. Do not self-publish is the recommendation from Carl Zimmer, otherwise you risk your efforts disappearing into the oblivion of the e-book world.
Get yourself a good agent, who will work to commercialize your idea and sell it to publishers. Do not give up the day job, no matter how big your advance from the publisher is (session chair Anjana Ahuja took an unpaid sabbatical to give her time to focus on her book).
Finally, you are never going to be adequately compensated for writing a science book, so above all do it because you are passionate, and good luck!
William Brandler, UKCSJ student scholar.