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.