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.