Writing Books: How to go about it

How should you go about writing science books? How do readers respond to this genre? Should you dumb down the idea while writing for a wide audience? What if someone else starts writing a book on the very topic that you are working on? These were just some of the questions discussed by the panel of science authors, agents and editors at the ‘Writing Books’ session conducted at the UK Conference of Science Journalists, 2014.

Jo Merchant, an award winning science journalist and author, currently working on her third book, stressed the need to be able to engage readers who generally do not read science books or articles. “The interview technique for gathering information for a book is different from doing the same for an article”, said Jo. She personally feels that pushing an interviewee hard to get more information rather than just the facts is essential to give a shape to the story.

A book should not cater to just a niche group, but should be able to hold the attention of all kinds of readers throughout. Giving an example, agent Karolina Sutton spoke about how the bestselling book by David Adams, 'The Man who could not stop' was both about the science of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), as well as someone's personal experience. It is important for one to think well about how he or she intends to tell the story. "There isn't a subject that cannot be presented", said Karolina.

But, how does one really go about writing a science book? According to Karolina, it is essential to have a clear idea of what would be presented in the book. It could be a good idea to contact an agent at an early stage, as many publishers will not respond to unsolicited approaches by authors. Equally, a good idea is to perhaps contact an agent when you have done some research and a skeleton of the book has been prepared. “There is no need to dumb down the idea for catering to a wide audience. If you are contemplating writing a book, aim high, but avoid an academic or inaccessible tone”, advised Karolina. Indeed, she stressed at length that accessibility in terms of language is a key factor in terms of success of science books.

However, new technology is changing the way people read, and author Philip Ball pointed out that it could be perceived as a strange time to write books. Writers do not earn a lot these days and advances for books have frozen, if not dropped.  Will Hammond, editorial director of The Bodley Head, pointed out that only very few science books were included in the bestselling list in the past two years. Preliminary figures (from Nielsen BookData UK) showed that only the most popular science books sold around 15,000 copies in hardback within a few weeks and that was only the case for the most exceptional titles,

So, why would one still decide upon writing a book? “The main reason for writing a book would be that you feel you have something important to say to the public”, said Philip. “You need to have a unique perspective of what to give your readers.” The voice of the author is what makes people like certain books, and this is what distinguishes book writing from journalism. “Science books give us a sense of discovery. Take your readers on a journey that is an inherently pleasurable experience”, added Will.

Writing after completing the research?

Though it may seem desirable to complete all research before writing a book, it is highly improbable that the research can be deemed to be complete. Hence, the panel advised against delaying the writing process. From experience, Karolina stated how some authors never got around to publishing their books, since their research took up a lot more time and delayed their writing. Philip advised to start writing as soon as one gets any ideas, and gradually improve it.

Is self-publishing changing the landscape of the publishing world?

With numerous books self- published each year, Will Hammond felt that it may be a threat to the publishing houses. But, there wasn’t much that could be done about it. If a self-published book seems to be performing really well, a publisher might pick it up and the author could get an offer from them.

Write for sale or for yourself?

In times when a new author could end up getting no reviews or coverage for their book, it could be quite difficult to decide between writing what one really wants and writing what the public would like. “It is good to know what kind of books work well, but you cannot base your decision of what to write on this information”, said Will. On the contrary, Karolina also pointed out how some promising careers disintegrated over the years, as the authors did not stick to the market trends and went about writing what they really wanted to. Hence, there could be a flip side to one’s decision and it is important to consider everything before embarking on the project.

And what should you do if someone else is also writing a book on the same subject as yours?  Do not give up on the project! Your book might be better than theirs, and this situation could be a boon in that case.

Will new forms of commissioning and funding survive?

It wouldn't be overly cynical to say that print media is in decline. Or, perhaps more fairly, that it is becoming harder and harder to get commissioned. The rise and rise of the internet has contributed to this in its own way, but some people aren't letting this be the death of science journalism. Instead new platforms are being developed to revolutionise the way which we fund and commission science journalism. These new platforms give writing opportunities not only to weathered professionals, but also to those looking to break into the increasingly impenetrable world of writing.

One new model which is being explored is crowdfunding. The essence of crowdfunding is that you ask people for money to do something that you like, but it is for something which they like as well, says Sebastian Esser, founder of KrautReporter.de. But this model hasn't yet been applied greatly to journalism.

Contributoria.com is one platform that is looking to use crowdfunding to revolutionise the world of commissioning and funding. It is not specifically a science platform, says Sarah Hartley, co-founder and editor, but a place for all long-form journalism where writers can pitch directly to potential readers who can then choose whether or not to fund them. The platform uses a 3-month production cycle, with a pitching phase followed by production and publishing phases, as long as the initial pitch receives enough backing. In response to the question, what do the people who fund the articles get out of the process? Sarah replied, "Contributoriais set up to be a collaborative community environment. I think our users feel a sense of altruism and a sense of belonging to a community." It shouldn't be viewed as a destination for reading articles; it is more of a community for writers, "a platform, a process and a cooperative."

Like most new commissioning and funding concepts, Contributoriareceived outside funding to launch. It received an initial grant from the Google-sponsored International Press Institute News Innovation Contest, and now receives funding from the Guardian Media Group. Nevertheless, questions have been raised about the sustainability of these new platforms once their initial funding runs out.

This new wave of funding and commissioning concepts isn't solely based on the crowdfunding model. Another emerging platform, Mosaic, takes open source to new levels. Giles Newton, editor of Mosaic, explained how the Wellcome Trust funds the platform, but the articles on Mosaic are not limited to Wellcome Trust-funded science. All Mosaic's stories are released on Creative Commons licenses, leading to many stories being taken up by mainstream media outlets, and inevitable surges in Mosaic’s site traffic. The ethos of Mosaic is that the stories are made available to all audiences, as long as Mosaic is referenced. None of the stories on Mosaic are copyrighted; this would undermine the whole concept of trying to gain wide audiences.< The talks concluded with a pressing question from an audience member who had been running a traditional publishing business for 14 years. He asked: "It is all well and good to have these platforms set up with enormous sums of initial investment, but in the long run how are you going to become economically viable? Are any of you going to be around in 14-years' time?" This does seem to be the most important point that is asyet unanswered. Are any of these new platforms going to become economically sustainable once their initial funding pools dry up? I, for one, do hope so.

Running your own business: Session Review

Three journalists and one accountant gave useful tips for freelancers to set up in business at the 3rdUK Conference of Science Journalists (UKCSJ14)

Chaired by Martin Ince, ABSW president, three speakers including Toby Murcott, Richard Hollingham and Martin Connell, filed the concern of journalists when considering stepping into the business world. Murcott previously worked for BBC Radio Science Unit, BBC World Service Radio, as Science Editor for Maxim magazine and Einstein TV. However, he began his freelancing path after an unexpected incident. Until now he has still not been on “the wrong side of the Inland Revenue”. The income from his freelancing job ensures that he has finance stability for a year at a time. Besides that, he has a balanced life in which he can enjoy both work and leisure time. Hollingham took a slightly different path when setting up a company that produces science programs for BBC radio and TV reports for the European Space Agency. His business has run pretty well so far. On the other hand, Connell is an experienced accountant with over thirty working years working with sole traders and small business owners. Although he has advised numerous sole traders and small companies, this is the first time he has clients who are science journalists.

Beginning as a freelancer

There are many ways to become a freelancer - both intentional and un-intentional. Like Murcott, it was an unexpected path. “Sometimes the company you work for goes bust and you don’t really have much choice”. Hollingham also didn’t intend to be a freelancer. He lost his job and then he decided to be a radio presenter. However, he became a freelance as his preferred choice when he realised the best way to guarantee the future was by going down the freelancing path.

Keeping hard - earned - money 

One of the most frequent questions for a freelancer is how to know that you can earn enough money? The answer of the two experienced journalists was the same; “by opening a business account”.

As a sole trader, Murcott’s saving tip is to divide total income every month into 40% for the reserved account and 60% for the bank account. The money in the reserved account will make sure that at the end of the year Murcott can pay his taxes without any difficulties and could leave an extra bonus for him from the remainder. It works like a back-up for him to make sure that he already has money aside for paying tax. Well, like the practical American often said “in this world nothing is sure but death and taxes"; tax is something that a freelancer should bear in mind first.

Meanwhile, Hollingham also agreed that having a business account is necessary. However, he had a slightly different formula. For the reserved bank account he puts aside 25% of his income. From his observation, that amount is “a little more than I have to.” It seems that a freelancer would have to base a decision on the particular personal circumstances to decide the right amount of money to be placed into separate accounts to pay off tax.  

From the accountant’s view, Connell urged that in the case where a freelancer sets up a company, that person has to have an account because it is needed for paying tax as well as for many other business expenses.  

Seeking professional help if necessary

In the conference, the panel drew on another key financial point: to encourage the journalist to manage a business with an accountant. Although Murcott said what the accountant reports bears “absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to what I think I do over the year”, it makes the tax burden at the end of the year become reasonable. Besides that, the accountant also makes the tax payment process become much smoother as they know about when, where, who and how to do that. 

Connell said there is a lot of faulty information on the internet. He also stated that freelancers are choosing self-employment and doing the tax by themselves. If they have questions, they should find answers from the correct source. Connell suggested “in terms of finding an accountant, I would recommend speak to a friend and get their recommendation.” 

And remember “happier earning a little bit less”

Murcott only earns £30,000 a year, which is as he said “not huge” but “enough”. The current work allows him to spend time with his family and to have plenty of leisure time. He said he is probably able to earn more but he feels happier now with the present situation. Hollingham also emphasised the necessity of a balanced life. He said the freelancer tends to think that they have to work every day and it’s crazy to have two freelancers in the one house-hold.

There are advantages and disadvantages in being a freelancer. However, careful preparation and professional work will help if you follow this path.

Science Journalism: Living up to the egalitarian ideal?

"Science is an egalitarian endeavour", exclaimed Priya Shetty, global health and human rights journalist, during the opening talk of UKCSJ 2014. Science may indeed have egalitarian ideals, but in practice both science and science journalism are rife with sexism.

Michelle Steinstreet, General Secretary of the NUJ, began the conference by explaining the prevalence of sexism throughout all journalism. Michelle noted, "the journalistic equivalent of the casting couch is still alive and kicking in the 21st century." But this isn't just a case of greasy old men preying on hopeful young interns. When it comes to ageing, female journalists are side lined more often than their "equally wrinkled male counterparts".

Joan Haran, of Cardiff University, has conducted research into sexism and harassment in science journalism. Joan reported the broad range of sexism, from intimidation to coercion and outright sexual harassment, which is prevalent in the industry. It was initially shocking to hear that one harassment testimonial couldn't be presented to the conference, as the victim believed the perpetrator may be in attendance. This announcement was met by an eerie silence, followed by turning heads and accusatory stares. I say 'initially' shocking as while the talk progressed it became overwhelmingly obvious that the various forms of harassment are so common in the industry that some of the perpetrators must have been present.

It was a deeply troubling talk, which had males throughout the room bowing their heads in an act of shame-by-gender-association. Although, there was a short break in these prostrations when Priya reminded us that not all men are predatory power abusers. "I'm not saying that all men act like this. It's a relatively small industry and many people know who the repeat offenders are, but they won't talk about it openly," Priya concluded.

Interestingly, Sue Nelson, chair of the panel, spoke out against the claim that sexism is all one way. She told the conference of a particular example of a male journalist having to leave the city after a particularly predatory female editor wouldn't stop harassing him. As partially reassuring as it was to hear that sexism doesn't solely stem from the Y chromosome, it is an unavoidable truth that nearly all cases are perpetrated by males.

It is still unclear whether sexism is more prevalent in science journalism than in other industries; or whether the sexism within this industry is a reflection of the simmering misogyny that still permeates society. Either way the issue will not get resolved unless it is talked about, and more importantly, talked about openly.

The overarching theme of all the talks in the session was that of the judgement, unfair reaction and negative ramifications which women are subjected to when they do report acts of harassment. Many are being side-lined, or even fired, just for telling their employers what happened to them. It is clear that the current pathways and channels that are used to report harassment in the workplace are not fit for purpose. Therefore, a new outside regulatory or legal framework is needed so that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace can have a safe and effective channel to report their experiences with impunity.

Reproducibility in Science: Session Review

 “Stop judging science by results”, said Dr. Chris Chambers, professor at the Department of Psychology, Cardiff University at the plenary session of UK Conference of Science Journalists, 2014, while stressing the need for reproducibility in science. Referring to the scientific method as being ‘gamed’, Chris strongly felt that the current cycle of peer-reviewed publications needs to be replaced by a process which ensures acceptance of a study before the results are obtained. In this way, the proposed methods and collected data could be reviewed, and the results would not determine the fate of publication of the study. This could be one way of avoiding the ‘cherry-picking’ of data and manipulation of results, which lead to lack of reproducibility in science. Furthermore, open data and critical reporting of science were said to be essential for keeping science honest.

Deborah Cohen, investigations editor at the BMJ, also stressed the need for being critical while reporting science and to keep asking questions.”If in doubt, ask for the data”, she said, while urging journalists to ask researchers their original aims and also to investigate why certain questions are not being asked at all.  Health sciences, according to her, have a lot of issues and should be investigated more thoroughly. She suggested checking Pubmed to see what has already been published about the topic at hand. In this age of digitized publications, it is extremely easy to compare new findings to old literature, and there should be no excuse for missing out on information for replicating old studies.

However, reproducing scientific studies is seen to be a growing problem. Ivan Oransky, vice president and global editorial director of MedPage Today, expressed his shock at the lack of reproducibility in science and gave an insight into incorrect scientific methods and rising retractions. Pointing to a few articles published in leading newspapers such as The New York Times, Ivan showed how journalists have misrepresented scientific information in the past, leading to bizarre headlines.

Besides, some scientific studies have also been conducted in an incorrect manner, either missing out on confounding factors or by considering a very small sample size, for instance. As a result, retractions are on the rise since, with more than a tenfold increase in papers retracted during 2001-2010 – a disproportionate amount when compared to the numbers of papers published. Ivan also gave an example stating that if 5000 compounds started out for the market, only about five would make it to the clinical trials, and then only one would be likely to get FDA approval.

A healthy discussion followed with the audience, with many important issues being talked about. The possibilities of increased pressures on scientists to get publications and funding were seen as likely causes of fraud in science. In some cases, scientific work may be dependent on certain funding agencies or individuals, which may result in financial interests causing distortion of the results. There will always be uncertainty behind the absolute truth of any research, but certain measures could be taken to improve the situation. As John P. A. Ioannidis explains in his paper, looking at large-scale evidence and reducing bias could be steps to take. Overall, it was seen that post-publication peer review could be a good option to regulate published studies, and scientists should certainly aim at becoming self-regulators of research.

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