I'll start off with some general thoughts and thefts - and a warning that this turned into a bit of an epic, reflecting the saga of getting a book published. Perhaps I should have applied some strict self-discipline in terms of editing and cutting, but then again, perhaps somewhere in the following are some bits and pieces of interest - and the bases for further conversation.
Your book, by definition, has never been written before - why not? You must think your idea, your topic, is interesting and exciting and that there are readers out there who will find it so. I recently came across a comment (the source, for the moment entirely escapes me) to the effect that, if you think of a book that you'd like to read, but hasn't been published, then write it. That seems to me as good a motivational starting point as any. The Guardian, the UK newspaper, last month published a piece titled "Ten Rules for Writers," a highly entertaining and provocative series of observations by the likes of Margaret Atwood, David Hare, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Zadie Smith, and other illustrious writers - yes, primarily about writing fiction, but writing is writing. I enjoyed the piece and would have appreciated it before I set out to write - there's good advice in it and, as of the time of writing this, it's available online. Among the things I liked was Hilary Mantel's echo of the comment I just mentioned - "Write a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? Don't write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book's ready." And then Joyce Carol Oates - "Don't try to anticipate an "ideal reader" – there may be one, but he/she is reading someone else." And if there was a recurring piece of advice, it was to read like mad, or, as PD James said, "Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious." I enjoy reading good popular science writing, but figuring out why it's good is not always easy - particularly if it's really good. A while ago, I read Richard Dawkins' compilation, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, and, while I complained about the lack of geology, it was a fascinating selection of the genre's diversity. Dawkins selected only science writing by scientists, which ignores some superb writing - there are scientists and non-scientists who are great writers - and vice-versa and everything in between; I was surprised at the challenge I had with accessing Peter Medawar's writing and deeply disappointed in Natalie Angier's The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science - but I learned from both experiences. A one-star Amazon review, by Bruce Hilpert, of Angier's book echoed my reaction and is instructive:
As another adherent of what I refer to as "gonzo non-fiction," Angier insists on injecting her own ego into the work at the expense of her subject and her readers. Almost every other sentence has a pun, word play or personal aside that distracts from her explanations. She can be clever, but how can she think that a sentence such as this brings clarity to her subject: "The vast splintered vale of our universe, as far as we know, is stocked with two basic offerings, two categorical insults to His Lowly Holiness of Absolute Nothingness that might otherwise have held sway: matter and energy."?
Angier seems to have lost track of the basic goal of expository writing - to explain things in a way that brings greater understanding to the reader. If she had cut out the unnecessary, distracting prose, the book would have been 1/3 as long and ten times more effective.
Please do not get the impression that I thrive on dry, textbook prose. Non-fiction should be compelling and "clever" is okay. Bill Bryson, in "A Short History of Nearly Everything," uses his sense of humor appropriately and effectively to enhance his discussion of science. Angier, however, seems to think that her audience bought her book not to learn about science, but to learn just how clever she is.
So I guess that thinking about writing in a way that avoids that kind of review is a good approach!
But to the meat of the question: "How do you take a technical or obscure subject and make it interesting to publishers and the public without losing accuracy?" First of all, the assumption must be that the writer finds the subject interesting - in fact, not just interesting, but fascinating, exciting, compelling, and surprising. That the "compelling" includes the writer's compulsion to write about it, and the "surprising" includes an element of the writer's own surprise at just how exciting it is. Think about exactly why this is. I certainly surprised myself when I began the process of setting out all the places that sand can take you, all the stories it can tell. So I would suggest that the element of surprise is critical - the subject matter may, at first, seem technical or obscure (or even, like sand, mundane and uninteresting), but if you can surprise your reader with how wrong that assumption is, then you've accomplished what you set out to do.
A big part of accomplishing that is figuring out why the topic enthuses you and then figuring out how to convey that enthusiasm in a way that will immediately surprise the reader - assuming that they have at least taken the book off the shelf in the store and then opened it. I was amazed and delighted, in doing the research for my book, by how many creation myths from widely different cultures around the world have sand as the basic primeval material, and so I decided to start the book with one - the first words of Chapter 1 (after quotes from Victor Hugo and Ralph Waldo Emerson) are "It was love at first sight" - I like to think of a potential reader seeing that and being surprised, if not hooked.
If you're enthusiastic about a subject, it's because of its intrinsic character, not because of the jargon that may surround it. Jargon and terminology in the scientific world are simply shorthand and carry no information beyond that (although they can also be used as a smokescreen or something to hide behind). The natural world, even as it appears in the laboratory or an equation, comes with no jargon attached to it, and its phenomena are simply things we try to describe as we observe them. So that's the way to try to write about them, and doing so requires no loss of accuracy. It's a challenge, but an intellectually enjoyable one and makes you really think about the phenomenon rather than its jargon. Whether it's saltation or the reason for plotting sand grain sizes logarithmically, or phase changes in the mantle, or the basis for optical luminescence dating, it is possible to describe it in everyday language: try it, try it out on yourself and then on friends and family. Analogies are great (for some reason or another, the kitchen is an effective environment for illustrating geological processes). For numerical measures, come up with something familiar and easily visualised - I had to deal with cubic meters and metric tons of sand carried by rivers or shifted in a sandstorm, and came up with the image of a parade of dump trucks trundling by; this required some research on dump truck specifications on the internet, but I derived a sort of standard truck size and its contents of sand by weight and volume. And here's one more thought - spend some time on the things we don't know, the mysteries, because, after all, it's those things that keep science exciting and they can do the same thing for a book.
So, the proposal. I don't know of a uniquely effective or standard way of putting one together, but here are the elements of what (after any number of experiments) I came up with:
- Intro or the up front sales pitch, trying to capture the excitement and uniqueness of the book. I spent some time drafting what I thought would be a good "blurb" on the back of the book, and this helped focus on the key points. A couple of provocative images can be good.
- "About the author" - a brief bio with emphasis (modestly, of course) on why you are qualified to write the book better than anyone else.
- "Core audience and appeal" - find some comparable books that have achieved success and describe why the people that bought those will buy yours. If, as is likely, the book will be illustrated, explain the attractiveness and information content of the illustrations (together with a comment on what proportion of them the author can provide).
- Table of contents and chapter synopses. The chapter summaries should be a couple of paragraphs.
Have a couple of sample chapters written and ready to accompany the proposal - but, unless you have infinite time on your hands and no need for a day job, don't write the whole book first. Looking back on the proposal that I ended up with, the eventual book structure became something quite different, but the material is more or less all there in the proposal.
Then what to do with the proposal? I put quite a bit of effort into trying to market the thing directly to publishers (via, for example, the massive London Book Fair - an experience in itself), but this is a soul-destroying task. In my experience, few publishers these days will accept unsolicited proposals ("are you agented ?" was the standard question, and, since at the time I wasn't, there was no further discussion to be had). You could get lucky (I nearly did - close, but no cigar). So, unless self-publishing is the route of choice (I can't really comment on this, but I didn't find it at all attractive), you need an agent - your next soul-destroying task.
Here, the internet is a great resource and in the UK there's an annual publication, The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, that lists, among many different resources, agents and their specialities (there must be something similar in the US). I looked for agents who specifically listed science among their specialisations, and then checked that they were willing to accept unsolicited proposals (a lot of them explicitly state that they are not). This is where I really did get lucky - after several failures, I found an agent who, for some reason or another, liked the idea and was willing to take me on. One of her first questions was "You're not doing this with the idea of making significant money, I hope?" I explained that I was realistic and that satisfaction was the primary motivation, and everything went well from there. She was tenacious - she needed to be. It took essentially a year for her to land the University of California Press, but boy, was I thrilled! I signed their contract (another learning curve in itself) at the end of 2006.
In terms of the advantages and disadvantages of different kinds of publishers, I'm really no expert on anything other than academic presses (both in the UK and the US), but some thoughts specifically on my experience:
- Reputation. University presses are prestigious and respected publishers.
- Production standards. Books published by academic publishers are generally produced to a high standard and with thoughtful and innovative design.
- Help. I don't know if this is universally true, but, in my case it certainly was. I knew I needed and editor - I wanted an editor, and was dismayed to hear that such a person is largely a thing of the past, at least in terms of active involvement. But I was lucky. The University of California Press assigned me a truly wonderful editor, without whom the book would have been distinctly inferior to how it turned out. She wrote that she “tried not to still the occasional meanderings, but simply to free up the larger eddies that threaten to impede forward motion.” She has become a good friend, one of the great pleasures of this roller-coaster saga. And everyone that I've been involved with at both presses has always been responsive and helpful.
- I also have to thank the press for suggesting that authors set up a blog to accompany and continue the book - without this encouragement, I wouldn't be writing this now.
Disadvantage - here I'll have to be honest and blunt (anyone from OUP or UCP reading this, please don't take offense!). Popular science books are "trade books" and, for academic presses, aggressive marketing to the general public is not their strength. They have certainly done a good job with my book, and I don't pretend that it could qualify for bookstore attention in the same way that Harry Potter does, but I just suspect that a commercial publisher has a higher aggression level, and, possibly, budget (although the publishing business everywhere these days is facing difficult challenges).
So, more than enough for now - I look forward to comparing notes with David and Brian, and, particularly, to hearing from anyone with the tenacity to have read all this!