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.
I love science, let me tell you why.