I was recently reading a blog by a fellow Science teacher (teacherofsci) in which he shares tips for running an engaging Science classroom. He suggests that the most important things are to be fun, be yourself and be active. I agree with him whole-heartedly and thought I’d share my measly two cents.
I’ve been teaching two subjects for seven years now and on Monday I will say goodbye to my form; a group of 25 pupils I’ve looked after and cherished for half a decade. It’s definitely time to take stock of my life and think about what I’m doing. Last time I got in a mood like this I wrote a blog about why I’m a teacher (here's why), today I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned as one.
I’m not going to write “top ten tips for the Science classroom” because I don’t think I have anything worth sharing. Every teacher, every class and every lesson is unique, so it’s foolish to give guidelines on what you should or shouldn’t do. There is no “magic bullet” that will work in every situation.
What I can share, however, are things I wish someone had told me when I started. If you’re thinking of becoming a teacher then maybe this will be helpful, and if you’re one of the people who trains teachers... don’t forget to mention this stuff.
1. You can't win every kid
You love your subject. You can remember when sparks started to fly for you, often because you had an inspirational teacher, and you want to do the same for someone else. You want to show the next generation how beautiful your subject is.
But instead of the subject you love, I want you to think back and visualise the subject you hated. For me that was art. I remember my teacher Mrs Williams trying to explain how important art was in the hopes of engaging me at the age of 14, but she needn’t have bothered. I knew art was important and I appreciated it just fine.
Art is a truly wonderful subject and I respect people who can do it. I just wasn’t interested in doing it myself and nothing could have changed my mind. Mrs Williams wasn’t a bad teacher, she just couldn't beat my hard-wiring. You probably had your own subject you didn’t care about. You dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s to get the teacher off your back, and that is how some students feel about your subject.
I am in love with Science and cannot fathom how anybody couldn’t be. But some people apparently aren’t. I’ve seen students daydreaming and yawning during lessons on black holes, quantum phenomena, the human brain and the chemistry of dynamite. I’ve done lessons where I have literally set fire to my arm and students have been checking their phones.
It’s tempting (and human) to take it personally, but sometimes it’s not you. Some students aren’t bothered about your subject because it's a part of who they are. It sucks because you know they’re missing out but you have to make peace with it.
This doesn’t mean you should give up trying to make your lessons engaging or blame the kids if they lose interest. You still need to keep busting your guts every day, but you need to accept that you will still fail sometimes. Even your best effort won’t be enough.
2. There are five kinds of student...
A – Students who love the subject already
B – Students who don’t love the subject, but will discover it with your help
C – Students who don’t love the subject and never will, but want to pass it
D – Students who don’t love the subject, but will suddenly care at the last minute.
E – Students who don’t love the subject, never will and genuinely don’t care if they pass.
Teaching student A is easy. You don’t have to put effort into convincing them your subject rocks, you just need to provide answers to their questions. Be warned though: you’ll unconsciously find yourself putting more effort into student A because you feel you’re getting more of a response. It’s a common mistake, particularly in the first few years, so be wary; all students need your attention.
The most emotionally rewarding moments in teaching tend to be with pupil B (for me at least). There’s something powerful about helping someone discover a passion. It doesn't happen all the time, so relish these moments.
Pupil C are the ones I'm most proud of. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching students who appreciate my subject, but I respect students who work hard at something they don’t like. I’ve had many kids tell me they just don’t get Chemistry or Physics but gave it their best shot regardless and it's always nice to see these kids doing well.
And then we come to D and E. I will say that E is fortunately rare. I’ve taught very few students who genuinely didn’t care and it's impossible to tell, ahead of time, which students will suddenly start to work hard when the end is nigh. Often you’re surprised.
Student D can be really tricky of course. They hate your subject, they’ve put no effort in all year and have probably been rude to you. When they suddenly switch on in the last few weeks it’s tempting to say “you're on your own.” It’s human to feel like they’ve ignored your help all year so how dare they click their fingers and demand you jump to attention and help them. But guess what…that’s your job.
Your need to keep student A’s passion alive, convince student B your subject is worth their time, help student C jump through the exam hoops and give support to any student who comes to you...including student D.
3. You're a person
I got told a lot during training that “it doesn’t matter if the kids get on with you” and it’s a poisonous lie. It’s one of the most important things. There’s a fairly obvious reason too: it’s easier to learn from someone you get on with.
If your students have a good working relationship with you, not only will they feel respected in your classroom, they are more likely to ask questions. If they’re afraid of you, they aren’t going to stop you when they don’t understand something. You won’t be teaching them at that point, you’ll just be talking at them.
Teaching, at its best, is a two-way street where students explain what you need to teach and what isn't working. If they think you aren’t human, they’re less likely to have that dynamic with you. I’ve also found (as I’ve mentioned on another blog) that relaxing and being yourself tends to make for better lessons anyway. Some might argue this is a waste of time because it’s not teaching them anything. But I disagree because your job isn’t just to teach your subject.
Like it or not, you being the “adult” in the room means you’re showing students what an adult looks like. We notice personality traits of people around us and if teenagers see all their teachers as personality-vacuums, it doesn’t paint a very optimistic picture of being a grown up. So be yourself. Be human.
4. They're people too...not exam machines
When you train as a teacher, you hear about how to assess immediate learning, monitor academic progress, calculate benchmark grades etc. etc. but there’s little emphasis on the fact you’re dealing with human beings who have lives outside your classroom.
When I was a teenager I was busy forming lifelong friendships and growing a sense of humour. I was questioning how much of my parents’ lifestyle I wanted to adopt and reject. I was working out my political and religious beliefs. I was discovering my taste in music, movies, art, books etc. Not to mention the infuriating distraction of suddenly being attracted to girls. In all honesty, school was a secondary concern during my teens and I was one of the “motivated” kids.
The people in your class have stuff going on in their lives which are more important to them than your lesson objectives. And that’s normal. I’d be puzzled by a teenager who wasn’t dealing with a bunch of stuff outside of school.
As a teacher, you’re the person with knowledge. Your job is to get that knowledge into the brains of as many people as you can and brains aren’t calculators. Brains are emotional, messy networks of illogical consciousness. People have insecurities, fears, hopes, anxieties, loves, mood swings and it’s worth remembering that. It’s a good idea to find out who you’re trying to help before you figure out how to help them. So treat your students like they’re people. They are.
5. They're also teenagers
Teenagers are not the same as adults. For one thing, their circadian rhythms are out of sync with daylight. The adult body-clock tends to wake up in the morning and fall asleep during late evening, but adolescents are biochemically inclined to fall asleep around 1 in the morning and wake up mid-day. Contrary to pernicious and slanderous myth, teenagers aren’t lazy, they’re just tired by 9–5 standards.
In Britain, the school day starts at 8:45 which is fine for most adults. But imagine if, as an adult, you were forced to start work at 4. You might be a little grumpy, a little lethargic, a little on edge, even a little emotionally drained. It’s no secret that depression is common among teenagers and lack of sleep is a significant factor.
Another thing worth remembering is that the adolescent brain is different to the adult brain. Teenagers have surplus hormones flooding their system, which can lead to extremes of uncontrollable emotion and their pre-frontal cortex (a part of the brain in charge of behaviour regulation) is still growing. So cut them some slack. Teenagers are more complicated than adults and you need to appreciate that.
Oh, and let’s not forget that today’s teenagers are growing up in a different world to the one their parents grew up in. The internet has changed our culture in a marked way. I don’t need to list all the ways it has revolutionised our culture because it should be obvious. But if you sometimes wonder why teenagers are different to “what it was like in my day”, that’s because the world is different to your day.
6. Everybody struggles with bad behaviour
My youngest pupils are 11 (upper end of children) and my oldest are 18 (adults). Every class in between is a mixture. Some of your kids are wanting to play on the swings while others are wanting to discuss Kantian empiricism. Pitching to such a diverse range of people is a challenge.
Also, remember you’re there by choice. They aren’t. 11 – 16 year olds are in your class because the law says they have to be. You’ve got people who are forced into subjects they don’t like, many of which they will never use again, they aren’t paid for it, they’re on an emotional roller coaster, discovering their sexuality and identity…and they’re tired. It would be surprising if they didn’t act out.
Some teachers have a reputation for being good with behaviour management but there is no such thing as a teacher who gets perfect behaviour all the time. I know a teacher who is beloved and respected by all students in his school. You never hear him being bad-mouthed. And yet he recently had a group of boys vandalise the front of his house. The reason wasn’t because he had annoyed these students…he doesn’t even teach them...it was because he was a teacher and therefore “the enemy”.
It sounds a little defeatist but I’m being realistic. Even great teachers get challenged by students sometimes. It’s not necessarily anything the teacher has done, it’s because a lot of teenagers hate going to school and some of them will make this plain.
I’ve had cans of coke thrown at my head. I’ve had bike-chains whipped at me. I’ve had students give me the middle finger and tell me they hope I get “raped and shot,” and that’s mild. I know teachers who have had their water bottles poisoned. I’ve known teachers get air rifle bullets through their windows and I even know one teacher who, years ago, had a student try to blow up their car.
I’m not trying to excuse or defend these extremes of behaviour. But difficult behaviour is inevitable. Often in teacher training they suggest strategies for behaviour management and give the impression it will magically make your lessons run smoothly…it won’t. I feel like when trainee teachers are being given all these ideas for managing behaviour it should be prefaced with the message “this will work about 40% of the time.”
Again, it’s about managing expectations. If you think you can be the teacher who never has a kid misbehave you’ll get frustrated quickly. You might be really good at controlling things but you’ll still have kids who won’t behave and this isn’t your failing. It’s not their energy drinks either, nor is it TV, the government or fluoride in the water…it’s school and you're a part of it.
7. Beware of "research"
One of the most common bits of teacher advice I was given while training was the motivational poster shown below. You may have come across it yourself. I remember being a little suspicious of the conveniently rounded numbers, so I went looking for the source material and discovered the reason the numbers seem odd is because they are fake. It’s the work of a man called Paul John Phillips who wrote a military training leaflet in 1947 for the Socony-Vacuum Oil company which contains the numbers. And he made them up.
Perhaps you have come across the idea of “multiple intelligences” and how people are clever in different ways. That started with Howard Gardner in 1983 and it’s not based on research either, it’s based on a popular psychology book he wrote which is not widely accepted by the scientific community.
Maybe you’ve heard there are such things as visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles? Or that you can improve learning with “brain gymn”? Or perhaps you’ve been told that people with “growth mindsets” make new brain connections every time they make a mistake? The evidence for these claims is at best non-replicated and at worst non-existent.
Every few years some educational research rolls out and teachers across the world run with it. I’m not saying be cynical - some teaching experts have fantastic classroom strategies which really work - but do be skeptical. A lot of this "research" does not deserve the name.
8. Every teacher has their own style
Something worth doing when you become a teacher is observe others. You pick up good ideas (as well as traps to avoid) and see lots of different ways of doing things. And they’re all OK.
The lessons with clothes lines running across the room and thousands of post-it notes stuck to kids’ faces are a fun change from routine but I’ve seen no evidence that anyone learns better from this. In fact, I’ve sometimes found teaching “chalk and talk” pays off more because if you run a fun-fair, kids remember the thrill of the game but forget what the actual learning was supposed to be.
The more I teach, the more I’ve come to realise that different teaching strategies are just a matter of personal style. There are some types of lesson I can’t pull off and, by contrast, I’ve had other teachers say things to me like “I couldn’t do what you do, tim.” It’s tempting to be flattered by this but my style of teaching is no better than anyone else’s, it’s just mine.
There’s really only one wrong way to teach: be boring. Everything else is worth a shot. And what’s more, having teachers with different styles is a good thing. Sometimes a student might get an explanation from Teacher 1 which doesn’t work for them. If they get help from Teacher 2 and hear the same explanation, it’s a waste of time. But if Teacher 2 has a totally different approach, the student hears different ways of tackling the problem and has a better chance of finding what works for them. So don’t feel you have to conform to another teacher’s way of doing things. Try your own way.
9. Use your holidays
Teaching is a rough gig. According to the Department for Education, if you add up the number of hours worked the average UK teacher pulls 21 extra working days per year than someone in a 9-5 job. What’s more, you do this in a shorter period of time. People like to moan about teachers getting long holidays…but we earn them.
I’m not pretending teachers are harder working than non-teachers - every job has its stresses and stressors. It’s just that teaching suits a particular personality. The “give it all you’ve got and then crash” personality. The important thing is to include the crash bit.
It’s very tempting, particularly when you’re new, to work during the holidays. Teaching requires buckets of energy, so a lot of new teachers keep surfing the adrenaline and work right through the breaks. But eventually you'll run out of steam and it will be in the middle of term.
I discovered this the hard way. During my first two years as a teacher I didn’t switch off at all. I worked an 8-6 day, every day, including weekends, for 24 months straight, only stopping for two or three days around Christmas and Easter. I ended up in hospital at the start of my third year.
A part of me is a little bit proud of that (I had enough energy to work for two years solid) but mostly I consider myself an idiot. I worked so hard I made myself sick and ended up in intensive care rather than the classroom where I was needed. Your students will benefit if you switch-off during the holidays, otherwise you’ll collapse in front of them and it won’t be pretty.
So pace yourself. Those holidays are crucial for sanity. Put them to use. Spend a few weeks not thinking about lessons. Read all those books you said you’d get round to. Write that screenplay. Write a book (although who would do something like that?). Learn to play an instrument or speak a language. The key message is: if you don’t have a break, you’ll have a breakdown.
10. Want to be there
This one seems obvious, but being a teacher shouldn’t be a job you do to pay bills...it should be your calling. It’s a sad fact but some people go into teaching because they couldn’t think what else to do with their degree. I find that attitude problematic. As a teacher you’re handling people’s futures. That’s not a job that’s a duty.
Imagine a doctor who didn’t care whether their patients got better or not. Would you want such a doctor treating you? Or treating your children? Granted, teaching isn’t as serious as medicine because you’re not dealing with people’s lives…but you are dealing with their futures and that’s still pretty important. Teachers are helping the next generation become the next generation and if you don’t agree, you shouldn’t become a teacher.
You have to be an optimist, an idealist and even a bit of a dreamer. You have to be in this job for the sake of the species, not your savings account. And if you think I’m being overly dramatic and you think “teaching isn’t that big of a deal” then stop wasting your students’ time and get out of the profession.
If you’ve tried teaching for a bit and “it’s OK I guess” then my advice is quit now. You’ll hate your job in five years. And, what’s worse, the kids will hate you too. You’ll be exhausted, stressed and you won’t inspire anyone.
But if you’ve tried the classroom and felt “this is awesome” then that’s all you need. If you love it despite the stress, if you still care about the kids when they’re horrible to you, if you haven’t lost any passion for your subject and still believe you can make a difference in people’s lives, then you have what it takes.
Love your subject. Love teaching it. Everything else is unimportant.
I'm getting paid to do this???
In part 1 of this blog I explained how I got a contract with the Little, Brown Book Group to write my debut book Elemental, released on the 5th of July. I've recieved lots of enthusiastic and curious responses, with a lot of people asking about the money. So I might as well talk about this aspect because it's interesting.
To be abundantly clear, I don't write about Science for the goal of earning fat stacks. I write about Science because I think it's awesome. I don’t monetise my YouTube channel (much to the horror of many students) and when people have asked me what I'll spend the money on I haven't had a good answer.
But let's be frank. I’m a human being living in the 21st century who needs to buy food and pay bills. Money isn't everything but it's useful and if people are willing to pay me for working (the time and effort required to write a book is basically a second job) I might as well say yes to that.
There are two ways you get paid as an author. First, you get what’s called an "advance”. This is a lump-sum which you recieve in thirds from the publisher. You get the first chunk when they sign you up, the second when you deliver the manuscript and the final one when the book gets published.
Then you earn royalties on book sales. However, to make sure publishers secure a profit you don’t start seeing royalties until you’ve broken even on your advance. Elemental has already been sold for a tidy sum in China and Poland however, so fortunately I’ve paid off my advance already. That means once the book hits shelves I'll start earning straight away. Provided people actually purchase it. (So...buy my book please).
Despite a lot of people asking however, I don't think it would be in good taste to divulge how much my advance was or what my percentages are. Just assume I’ll be eating lobster and gold-plated salads in private jets for the rest of my life.
Writing 101 with tim james and friends
In February 2016 I signed an 18-page contract which gave me nine months to write a 45,000-word "light-reading guide to Chemistry". All I had to do was write the damn thing and unfortunately there isn't much I can tell about my writing process.
I don’t sit in a log cabin sipping hot-chocolate in front of a typewriter, delicate harp music in the background as a roaring fire pillows thick smoke into the air. My writing process is to sit in the corner of a dark room and think of good sentences. That’s about it. Oh, and I wear my hooded cloak as I do so. I'm wearing it right now.
I can definitely tell you the book went through five drafts though. The first draft was simply getting the ideas down - it wasn’t so much a book at this point as a scrabbly scaffold of interesting Chemistry facts. Draft two was when I turned this loose assortment of mini-essays into a coherent piece of writing with a structure and draft three was when I tried to make it readable. Following this, I asked other humans to have a look at it.
I needed people to check how good my explanations were, fact-check the information and tell me if the book was any good. I thus enlisted the help of friends, co-workers, students and Science-editors who I knew would be meticulous, straight-talking and critical. I wanted them to tear my writing apart.
This book wasn’t just me mucking around on the internet, it had to be worthy of people's hard-earned cash! (Speaking of your hard-earned cash…buy my book please). So, if you write something and want others to read it, my advice is not to choose people who are going to be complimentary. Pick people who will give you brutal truths you'd rather not hear.
And the people I asked were predictably fantastic. They told me when it was boring, when it made no sense and when I was waffling indulgently. They pointed out errors I made, lousy phrases I used and even suggested improvements. This is an important tip for becoming a writer: your ego needs to take a bath. If you can’t face criticism you aren’t going to write anything good. Nobody writes a perfect book on the first draft unless they're Sylvia Plath or Robert Heinlein (who allegedly wrote one draft only). And I'm not them.
I then spent my Summer battering the book into a version I could submit to the publishers. This was an arduous process of re-writing, referencing, cross-referencing, finding sources, taking other people’s notes etc. etc. and finally, on 29th August 2017, two months shy of the deadline, I had the fourth draft finished. Complete with childish humour and godawful illustrations which astonishingly my editors have decided to leave in. Any of my students reading this will already know how abysmal my drawings are...so there's that to look forward to.
The editing process which ensues after a book gets submitted to publishers is quite long. First, your text goes to a desk editor. This is someone who gives feedback on style and decides if what you’ve submitted is what the publishers asked for.
The next person in line is the copy editor who goes through and cleans up your grammar. This might seem strange because if you've secured a book deal you probably know how to write. But the thing is…and brace yourselves for this…grammar is not official. I know this may come as a shock to people who love correcting others when they misplace a comma or split an infinitive, but there are no officially recognised “laws of grammar”.
When you're writing, you can use whatever grammatical structure you please, provided the intent of the sentence is clear. It’s not like mathematics where there is a right answer - grammar is a matter of taste only.
For example, I capitalise the word Science on my website, while the generally accepted approach is that you shouldn’t. But that’s a preference which I simply don't have. I like the way the word looks when capitalised and nobody is confused by what I'm talking about. So I do it anyway. This is why a copy editor is necessary; writers have their own personalised grammatical style and preference but publishing houses have an agreed "house style" which your book has to match.
Then there’s a legal team who read through your text and make sure you aren’t plagiarising or writing anything libellous. There’s someone who goes through and makes sure all the references you’ve used are real. Then someone makes an index, someone else collates the illustrations and finally you have something ready for print.
In December 2017 I was sent this fifth draft for minor tweaking and after 274 e-mails between myself, the publishers and my agent Jen, the book was completed and good-to-go on 13th March 2018.
One thing which has been a huge surprise is how much deliberation goes into deciding the title, subtitle and front cover for a book. We went through at least fifteen title combinations and seven cover designs before we settled on the one displayed above.
Initially I found this peculiar, but it makes perfect sense when you think about it. A movie trailer is composed of clips from the movie, but books don’t have trailers. What would it even involve? A bunch of disconnected sentences strung together for 2 and a half minutes? We're not writing a James Joyce novel here.
The book’s front cover is the advert, so the old adage “never judge a book by its cover” is total nonsense. It’s really important to get the cover of a book right, but unfortunately I suck at this kind of thing. I don’t know anything about marketing, so I let my publishing director and agent take the wheel at this point, although I can say with a little pride that the title we eventually chose came from my suggestion.
I started writing in June 2015. It’s three years later and I’m about to see my first book hit the shelves. There’s every chance this will be the only thing I ever get to publish because it might flop dreadfully and get hideous reviews. If that happens I doubt any publisher will touch me again. But maybe, just maybe, the book will do well and I’ll get to write another.
Obviously I want my book to do well because I put a lot of work into it. I love Science, I love writing about it and all joking aside, I am proud of Elemental. Have I written the greatest pop-Science book of all time? Of course not. But I'm hopeful that I've written something people will find entertaining and educational. Chemistry is a beautiful subject and I’ve done my best to convey how elegant and downright cool it is, but if I never get the chance to write professionally again then so be it. I am still grateful to everyone who helped Elemental happen.
Think only this of me
When I was 14 years old, a teacher leant me a textbook on quantum chemistry and something inexplicable happened. A light in my brain, one I didn’t know was there, switched on. That book was Valency and Molecular Structrure by Edward Cartmell and Gerald Fowles, published in 1956.
I read it 54 years after publication so Cartmell and Fowles will never know that their book inspired a lonely, nerdy teenager to dedicate his life to Science. I have no idea how well Valency and Molecular Structure sold and I’ll probably never find out because it’s now out of print. But it exists. Those guys wrote a book and their words went further than they did themselves, switching on lights in people’s heads long after they’d written the final full-stop.
I’m a Science teacher because I want to switch on lights. I want people to find the world interesting, to learn about it, be inspired by it and to help make it a better place. My book won’t change civilization as we know it but maybe some 14 year old kid somewhere, far into the future, will pick up a copy of Elemental and have a lightbulb moment of their own.
That’s why if Elemental doesn’t become the world’s highest-selling Science book I won’t care. Writing my first book has been a remarkable journey and if it is also my last, then at least I made a small mark on Science literature. And that is a good feeling.
As my launch date gets closer, I’m constantly reminded of interviews you see with actors at the Academy Awards who say things like “I don’t care whether I win. It’s an honour just to be nominated!”
I used to think this was for show because they secretly wanted to win more than anything. But I have come to realise that they are being sincere…because it’s exactly how I feel. Naturally an oscar-nominee is hoping to win and naturally I’m hoping my book will do well, but really it’s just an honour to have a book published at all. If I never get to print another word then I can say I gave it my best shot. James out.
P.S. Buy my book.
As many of my readers will know, I have a book coming out in a couple of months. Elemental: How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Neary) Everything is a light-hearted guide to Chemistry, and the whole thing is amazing. I mean the fact I have a book coming out, not the book itself. Well, yes the book too. My book is amazing. Buy my book. It’s a giddy feeling because I’ve always enjoyed writing about Science so to say “I am a professional Science author,” is extremely gratifying, if a little daunting.
The way a book creeps into existence is a fascinating process. I had always assumed an author wrote a book, sent it to a publisher and if the publisher liked it they printed it. I soon learned this was as naive as the belief that babies are brought by the stork. Or the belief that a book gets brought by the Amazon delivery truck. Speaking of which, here’s a link where you can pre-order my book from Amazon: Buy my book.
Generally I tend to write about Science on this blog, with occasional forays into life as a teacher and intermitent essays on hermeneutics. But my recent adventures in publishing are probably worth sharing. Partly for other aspiring writers, partly because it’s really interesting, and partly because I need to shamelessly promote my book…Buy my book.
So, you think you’re a writer?
Cast your mind back to June 2015. The U.S. Senate had just given metadata responsibility to telephone companies, I Really Like You by Carly Rae Jepsen was in the charts, and St Bennets’ Hall of Oxford University decided to admit female students after 118 years of refusing them. Seriously.
It was around this time that I got an idea. I was watching a video of a comedian complaining about being ill-equipped to answer his children’s Science questions. “Electricity? It just comes down the electricity pipe, right?” As part of my job, I spend a lot of my time answering questions like this, so I know how to answer where electricity comes from.
I also know what causes itching, why dogs wag their tails and why you shouldn't put metal in a microwave when the inside is metal anyway. I figured I might be able to help flummoxed parents with these questions, so I decided to write a bunch of answers as a casual hobby.
After about a month I had over 100 entries, so I put them into chapter-categories and turned it into a book called What is Fire Made of: Answers to Burning Questions Kids Ask. I thought it was readable and potentially useful, so I decided to see if anyone would help me get it out there. And it turns out the very last people you should send a book to are publishers themselves.
Writing is a very common hobby these days. No longer is it reserved for sweating melancholics languishing in candlelit dungeons - lots of people write books and lots of them want to get published. It’s hard to find exact figures, but large publishing houses recieve something like 5,000 submissions a year. Only 1.5% of these manuscripts get picked up while the other 98.5% never see the light of a printing press.
Rejected books might be unmarketable, they might be offensive or, putting it bluntly, they might be badly written. Although I'm uncomfortable suggesting that last one because it arrogantly implies my book is one of the good ones. Although it is. Buy my book.
So, if you’ve written something, take my advice and save the price of postage. Anything submitted to a publisher will probably go straight to shredder, and I'm not talking about the machine there. I mean it gets fed to Shredder, the arch-villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Tutrles. It's a little known fact but after being defeated by the turtles for the dozenth time, Shredder retired from crime and now works for the publishing industry consuming rejected author manuscripts.
Factotums of the Publishing World
Publishers do want to find new authors of course, but they don’t have time to read through an endless slew of potential books, this is where literary agents come in. Literary agents are like talent-scouts who read submissions from authors and pick out those which have a chance. Publishers rely on literary agents to find books worth taking seriously so the bottom line is: if you don’t have an agent, a publisher won’t look at you.
Literary agents aren’t just talent scouts though. They also act like solicitors who represent their authors and make sure they get a fair deal. Publishing law is complex and most people outside the industry have no idea how it works. International rights, royalties, distribution agreements, marketing costs etc. are a headache and I honestly can’t tell you much about them. But I don’t have to because my agent understands it all. That’s the whole point.
Literary agents are also navigators of the publishing landscape; knowing which publisher specialises in what. This might sound strange because a lot of people don't give thought to who the publisher of a book is. Can you tell me who Stephen King’s publisher is? Or John Green’s? Possibly not, but it's actually of great importance.
When you go into a bookshop you look for certain genres or authors and might therefore assume that publishing is a free-for-all. That’s how it works in the movie industry where film studios produce every genre. But in publishing, things are highly specialised.
If you’ve written a children’s cook-book which teaches kids how to navigate the kitchen, publishers who specialise in children’s books or cookery guides will be interested. If you’ve written a children’s cook-book which is about the best way to cook and eat children themselves, that’s a different kind of publisher altogether.
You probably don’t know which publishing house specialises in which genre or sub-genre (I certainly don’t) but again, this is where your agent comes in. Agents know which publishers print what books, which editors to contact and what kinds of things they’re looking for. They also act as liaisons between you and the publishers, making sure the book is something they want to read and something you want to write.
Your agent takes a small percentage of the money you make and in return they promote your book to potential buyers. Not to mention helping you edit your proposals, refine the text itself, give you feedback on style and make you presentable to your readership (my readership includes you incidentally...buy my book).
Hang on, I need to get this…it’s my agent calling
Once my book was in a readable state, I began researching literary agents in the UK, particularly those who had an interest in popular Science. A couple got in touch and wanted to know more about me, as well as ideas for future projects. For obvious reasons, agents and publishers want to find someone who will write more than one book so they’re really looking for authors, not just the book they've written.
I quickly got a good vibe from The Graham Maw Christie literary agency, and in particular Jen Christie who considered my submission. Jen did a really good job of explaining what she was interested in and what I should be doing to get publisher attention. The GMC agency had done a few Science titles prior to mine, but were looking to get into it more seriously, so when they offered me a contract (September 2015) I said yes without hesitation.
It’s a pretty weird feeling to have someone think your writing is worth investing time in, and it’s strange to be one of those people who has an agent. But also…it’s pretty sweet. I have genuinely said the words “that’s my agent calling” in the middle of a conversation. Oh, and here's my page at the GMC website with a hauntingly youthful look on my face.
Thanks, but no thanks
My agent Jen began approaching publishers with What is Fire Made Of? and several expressed interest, although none were biting. The general response was that they liked my style but they weren’t sure about the book itself.
For one thing, there are similar titles out there already and my book would be white noise. Novels are different because once a genre explodes (vampire-romance for instance), lots of authors join the game. But non-fiction works differently because you’re in competition with the internet. In a world where the answer to many questions can be Wikipedia’d people are only going to buy a book if it’s offering them something unique. This means in non-fiction it’s important to write what nobody else is.
The concept of my book also presented a problem. Was it for children or the parents of children with difficult questions? It’s hard to write a book for both types of reader and my book was an awkward hybrid. So although a lot of publishers made nice noises, it got rejected and Jen decided What is Fire Made Of? wasn’t going anywhere. This is another thing an agent can do: they can tell you when it’s time to stop flogging the dead poet.
Jen also pointed out something I hadn’t really considered. First-time authors are approached with caution because they are a risk. Publishers have to get a feel for you and I was a complete unknown, largely staying out of the limelight. Was I someone who had a lot to write about? Would people want to read my writing? Or was I just a one-book guy that nobody would be interested in?
So Jen suggested I be more proactive with getting my face out there. I was reluctant at first because I don’t want to promote myself, I want to promote Science (speaking of which, buy my book) but she had a point. Nobody knew who I was. Plus, I enjoy teaching Science so why restrict it to my classroom?
It had never occured to me to put myself on the internet because other people seem to be so good at it already. But I decided to give it a shot. I launched this website around January 2016, along with my YouTube channel and instragram. I soon discovered that I actually had lots of things to talk about and, even stranger, people seemed to like reading it. If What is Fire Made Of? wasn’t going anywhere that wasn’t a problem. I had other things to write.
A lot of my ideas were shot down immediately (I wanted to do a book about the Science of death, dying and corpses for instance) but some of them had promise, so Jen and I worked on proposals for several months. I wrote outlines and sample chapters for five books, including one novel, and while this period was very frustrating, I learned a lot about writing itself which paid off when we finally got somewhere.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
In August of 2016, a year after she signed me, Jen began talking to a publishing director at Piatkus, Constable & Robinson - a formerly independent publisher recently bought by the Little, Brown Book Group.
Constable & Robinson has won three “Publisher of the year” awards in the last decade and Little, Brown has won four. Little, Brown published J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and are also Leonard Susskind’s publishers - one of my favourite Science writers.
Little, Brown are in turn owned by the Hachette Book Group, one of the five largest publishers in the world (third largest for educational books) and in 2016 they had 44 titles reach #1 on the NYT bestseller list. These guys are serious players. So, like a bright-eyed and hopeful Dick Whittington, I headed for London in search of spectacle and good fortune.
From the outside, Hachette HQ looks like any other office block, but once you go inside it’s a contemporary cathedral. You walk through polished glass doors into an atrium of echoing surfaces at least six stories tall. The welcome desk was so big it needed three receptionists and there were security guards to check my bags and issue me with a nifty ID badge saying “author” on it.
I met with the publishing director and headed to a private garden/restaurant on the roof, with a tower view overlooking the Thames as we talked about writing and Science. And, after a few hours, an idea started to emerge.
There’s a lot of pop-Science books about Physics and Biology but surprisngly few on Chemistry. There are academic “introduction to Chemistry” texts and a few books which talk about elements and their uses, but nobody has yet written an informal beginner’s guide to Chemistry and the periodic table. I began writing that evening.
The book hadn’t officially been commissioned (I had to prove I could deliver what had been asked for) but it was a thrilling opportunity and, 357 e-mails later, Jen and I had a decent writing sample. We suhbmitted and on 6th February 2017 (six months after the pitch meeting) the book was bought for Piatkus, Constable & Robinson > Little, Brown > Hachette. I was officially a professional author.
Join me in part 2 where I'll talk about the process of how a book goes from initial idea to finished product. And buy my book. Please. If the cute cat didn't motivate you, perhaps I should try the following approach instead. Buy my book otherwise...
I love science, let me tell you why.