Writing a book: what a long strange trip it’s been

Image: Sidewalk art by Jeremy Brooks, via flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0; lyrics from Truckin’, Garcia/Weir/Lesh/Hunter.

Warning: really long post.  TL;DR: Publishing a book is really different, and I learned a lot by doing it.

Heard_Scientist'sGuide coverPerhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve just published a book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  (I’ve tried to make it hard for you not to notice.)  And lately, it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.

What do I mean by that? Well, if I were an academic in the arts or humanities, there’d be nothing unusual about having published a book.  But in the sciences we don’t write a lot of books.  Like most scientists, I knew next to nothing about writing or publishing a book before I started working on mine.  If you’re curious about how it works and what it’s like, read on. Who knows, maybe you’ll write a book too, someday. (Caution: since I have a sample size of one – for now – I can’t guarantee that my story is representative.)

Books take a long time

It took almost five years* from the first tentative plan to a published book I could hold in my hand.  I knew it would take a long time, of course, but I didn’t see five years coming.  Inasmuch as I planned it out at all (and I’ll admit that making and sticking to a plan is not my academic strong suit), I thought perhaps six months to write a prospectus and get the book under contract, a year to write the rest of it, and another to get it published. (Ha!)

In hindsight, of course, I’m not sure how I thought I could write a 90,000-word book in a year.  90,000 words is about 15-20 journal papers.  You could look me up on Google Scholar and get a feel for the probability of my writing 15 papers in a year – or I could save you the trouble and tell you that if probabilities could be smaller than zero, that one would be. And of course I didn’t shut down everything else – those 5 years include one spent as Department Chair and one as Dean of Science, and I continued all the while to teach undergrads, advise grad students, and publish papers. (A year on sabbatical lightened my undergrad teaching, but had little effect on my other activities.)

The process is utterly unlike a journal paper

Like most scientists, I’ve published my work almost entirely as journal papers.  I know the journal publication process well, as an author, a reviewer, and an editor.  Books, though, are really different, and I learned by trial and error.  The trip was long and strange, and (believe it or not) what follows is just the high points.

July 2011: I begin thinking about writing a book on writing.  I start with a rough outline and a few paragraphs of text capturing some of the key points I wanted to make.  I also spend some time at the library, looking at competing books.  There are a lot of other writing books out there (and some of them are pretty good), but my review confirms what I thought: there’s a gap.  Nothing on the market seems to approach writing the way I want to, with as much focus on the writer (and their behaviour) as on the writing, and with some engaging storytelling about the history and culture of scientific writing to back up the more prescriptive stuff I know the book will need.  I also do some reading about the book publication process.  It’s difficult to find much detail particular to academic books in science, but I figure out that before approaching a publisher, I’ll need (at least) an outline, a “prospectus”, and a couple of sample chapters.

Sept 2011 – Feb 2012: I write two sample chapters:

  • Chapter 1: On Bacon, Sprat, and Newton, and the selfishness of writing well
  • Chapter 21: Self-revision.

I also think a bit about publishers, and decide to start by approaching Princeton University Press.  My logic: I might as well start with a major press, since I expect one of those to do a good job of making the book widely available; and unlike the other major university presses, Princeton doesn’t already have a writing book in its list.

March 2012: I think I’m ready to submit a proposal.  The website for the Press says they don’t want e-mail submissions, though, and  I don’t know what that means.  So I send a brief email to the “acquisitions editor” asking how to go about making a submission.  I get a reply fairly quickly saying that e-mail submission is fine (I guess the website is unwelcoming to deter cranks).  So I send a CV, a Prospectus, Table of Contents, and Outline, and my two sample chapters.  I’m well along in the process, I think – soon I’ll have either a contract or a rejection.  (Ha!)

Within a week I get a response asking for more detail, and in particular asking two questions: first, how my book will be different from competing books, and second, how long I think it will take me to finish writing the book.  I quickly expand the Prospectus and suggest that with a contract in place by June 2012, I can complete the book by June 2013 (Ha! and Ha!).

June 2012: Two months go, and then in a phone conversation the editor suggests that the material I’ve sent doesn’t give a clear enough picture of the book.  (In hindsight, she’s right, of course.)  She suggests either additional sample chapters or a greatly expanded Outline.  The latter makes most sense to me, so I work one up and submit it as part of my 3rd package.  This, my editor assures me, will promptly be sent to 3 reviewers, with the goal of a decision by early fall.  (Ha!)

These requests for additional information, by the way, reveal a tension that’s really critical to book publication. Here it is.  As an author, I know that writing a book is a huge time commitment, and so I want to write as little of it as possible before knowing the book will actually be published (that is, before I have a contract).  As a press, though, Princeton doesn’t want to commit to publish something they haven’t seen, particularly from an author who’s never written a book before.  Both sides of this tension are entirely understandable, but they aren’t easily reconcilable. (More about this commitment tension below).

October 2012:  The reviewers haven’t returned their reviews; the editor suggests a new set of reviewers with a 4-6 week turnaround.  In the meantime, I’ve written a few more chapters, so I suggest submitting a new package.

November 2012: My fourth submission,  this time with 7 sample chapters:

  • Chapter 1: On Bacon, Sprat, and Newton, and the selfishness of writing well
  • Chapter 2: Genius, Practice, and Craft
  • Chapter 21: Self-revision
  • Chapter 22: Friendly Review
  • Chapter 23: Formal Review
  • Chapter 24: Revision and the “Response to Reviews”
  • Chapter 26: Managing Coauthorships

December 2012: Some positive feedback comes in from the editor, including this passage:

You’ve been smart to continue working on the book. The sample material is very good—I have some suggestions throughout, but on the whole you’ve maintained a nice combination of personal anecdote and practical advice in each chapter. The chapters have a distinctive voice and the credibility of an insider, which is what caught my interest from the beginning…

This feels like progress. It also feels, I have to admit, like not much progress 18 months into the project!

February 2013: Two reviews come in. One is negative, and one is positive, which makes the 3rd review (still outstanding) seem very important.  Also this month: I give my first public talk based on material from the book – in my home university’s Department of English!  I’m terrified by this, but it goes well and feeds my belief that I’m not utterly wasting my time.

March 2013: After 3 months, still no 3rd review; the project seems cursed. Worse, the editor suggests a change in strategy: that I write the rest of the book, and we restart the review process with a complete manuscript.  Her argument: I’ll get a better assessment and more useful feedback that way, and that even with an advance contract they would still do a post-completion review anyway.

This, of course, brings me back to the “commitment tension” I described above.  Of course the Press would prefer that I just send them the whole book before they make any commitment – but why would I want that?  Time for some soul-searching: do I stop work while I approach a new publisher?  Or do I keep going, and essentially write an entire book on spec?  (At this point, 12 of 27 planned chapters are completed).  After considerable thought, I decide that it boils down to this question: if I write the entire book, and in the worst case can’t find a publisher, am I willing to self-publish?  (Self-publishing has changed dramatically in the last few years, moving away from universal dismissal as “vanity publishing”.)  Perhaps foolishly, I decide that I believe in the book enough to think that (1) I can get it published; and (2) if I’m wrong about (1), I can self-publish and get the book to at least some of its intended audience.  Back to the keyboard!

May 2014: I complete a draft of all 27 planned chapters!  I make my fifth (yes, 5th) submission to the Press, this time of an entire book manuscript.  With doubts about my sanity, I await reviews.

Because the process has taken so long, I also tell the editor at Princeton that I intend to approach other publishers with the manuscript as well.  This is something you cannot do with journal papers, but you can do with books – although publishers may not like it, and it’s bad form to withhold the information from those considering the manuscript.  I do, in fact, approach several other presses, without any luck, but I don’t work particularly hard at it (probably a mistake).

September 2014: The first review – and it’s positive!  It opens:

You have created a valuable document for new (and even experienced) science writers. It is well written, fun to read, and full of useful information. I enjoyed reading the book myself and am certain your audience will enjoy your information as well as your writing style. 

We’re almost there, I think to myself. (Ha!)

December 2014: The second and third reviews arrive.  One is glowing (“delightfully informative”). The other… well, I can see the glow reflected from where the reviewer set my manuscript on fire.  A small sampler:

It is long-winded, taking pages to say what could be said in a few sentences…. It is preachy without being helpful… The book has an old-fashioned feel, with ancient examples and footnotes… There is some useful material in the book, but it seems obvious. The book is no fun.

Hmm.  That’s two positive reviews and one stinker, with a fourth still to come.  Could be worse, right?  But this is seven months after the most recent submission and 3½ years into the project. I’m at some risk of losing all perspective…

(end of) January 2015: The fourth review, and it’s positive!  The book, according to reviewer 4, is “tightly written… engaging and clear”. [“Take that, reviewer 3!” shouts the very small man I try not to let out.] Next, the book goes to the Press’s Board for a decision.  With three strong reviews, I’m feeling good about this – although if you’re like me you’ll know that nagging doubts always remain.

February 2015: Acceptance!  The paperwork to generate a contract begins, and I do my happy dance.  (You have not seen my happy dance. It happens in private, and that’s a Good Thing.)

March 2015: Contract offered and (after a bit of negotiation) signed.  I’m to deliver a revised manuscript by May.  This is it, right, except for a few details?  (Ha!)

April 2015: I send a revised manuscript, making changes suggested by the four reviewers.  This includes a new chapter  (Chapter 27 (now of 28): Writing in English for Non-Native Speakers). The editor tells me that next she’ll review and make comments herself.

June 2015: The editor sends me her comments; I revise again and send a new version**.

September 2015: The manuscript is marked up by a copyeditor; I approve most of those changes, squelch a few, and make further edits in respond to some others. I send another new version.

November 2015: The book gets its Amazon page!  I am not ashamed to say that seeing yourself on Amazon is pretty thrilling.  It’s also a pretty good motivation for the next step, which is –

December 2015 – January 216: Proofs!  And not one set, but four iterations – each time 300 pages, and including an index (prepared by a professional indexer, thank goodness, because I’d have no idea how to make an index).  I will never complain about checking proof for a paper again.  Ten journal pages? Pffft.  Also: I learn that somebody actually pre-ordered my book on Amazon.com!  And I thought seeing the Amazon page was thrilling…

Heard_Scientist'sGuide coverJanuary 2016: A cover is designed.  Actually, two covers are designed, and I get to choose.  I had, earlier, been asked for thoughts about colours and designs, and for examples of book designs I like and dislike. In a rare moment of common sense, I’d realized that I know even less about book design than about indexing, and I’d refrained from saying much.  (Perhaps I should have thought harder about this; it turns out the stylized DNA is wrong. Or it’s not. I learned a lot from wondering which.)

April 2016: The book is released! I hold a copy in my hands, and after nearly 5 years it’s hard to exaggerate how exciting this is.  You can hold a copy in your hands, too (hint hint):

Canada Canada: The Scientist’s Guide via Amazon.ca, or via Chapters.ca

United_States USA: The Scientist’s Guide via Amazon.com

150px-Globe.svg Everywhere else: see links here.

The process is just like a journal paper

Wait, doesn’t that head contradict the head for the last section?  Well, yes; but I stand by both heads***: the process is utterly different, and it’s also exactly the same.  For all the superficial and formal differences, what happened underneath was perfectly familiar from my experience publishing journal papers.  I struggled and sweated to write and revise. I sought friendly review from colleagues. I gave talks about the work in progress.  I submitted and got peer reviews. Reading the reviews, I felt crushed and exhilarated, insulted and affirmed. I revised, and felt the pain as some of my hard-won words ended up on the cutting-room floor.  I squinted at line after line of proof, catching some errors and dreading my certain later discovery of errors I wouldn’t catch.  And I saw my work released for others to read, with hopes it might help advance science (even though a writing book isn’t, itself, me doing science).

Most importantly: the final work is much, much better for its trip through the process, with input from friendly reviewers, formal peer reviewers, and editors.  Peer review is often maligned but, in my experience, works brilliantly.


Writing something different is really fun

All long, strange trips lead to discovery.  I learned something important by writing a book: it’s a real pleasure to write something different.  Different, I mean, from the technical journal papers that are my bread and butter.  I don’t mean that every moment was fun: I’m still not a great writer, and I still sweat and curse over sentences that aren’t coming.  But it was fun to experiment with style (and discover I had some).  It was fun to indulge in obscure connections and asides that I hoped could engage a reader (which is why the book mentions the etymology of fart, the only Grammy ever awarded for Best Disco Recording****, and the Internet’s list of writers who supposedly avoid procrastination by writing naked).  It was refreshing to have space to explore a subject expansively (which is not at all the same thing as long-windedly; and take that, Reviewer 3!).

My discovery that I enjoy less technical writing led, eventually, to Scientist Sees Squirrel.  It’s no accident that both the content and the style of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing have echoes – strong ones – here on the blog (and if you enjoy one, you’ll likely enjoy the other).  What a long, strange trip it’s been – and I’m happy that release of The Scientist’s Guide is a milestone but not the end of the journey.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) April 21, 2016

Related posts:

*^In fact, it took so long that I’ve lost track of exactly how long it took.  I’ve reconstructed the dates in this post from file creation dates, fossilized emails, and so on. The earliest date I can find now is July 25, 2011, for the creation of a file called “writing fragments”, and I’m calling that my book’s date of birth.  Close enough!

**^At this stage the book loses some length and, sadly, about 40% of its footnotes.  People either love or hate footnotes.  If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know which camp I fall into.  Publishers really hate them: they’re difficult and expensive to typeset (or at least, that’s what they say; in an age of computer typesetting I’m unconvinced).  Believe me, those excised footnotes were a hoot – almost as good as the ones I fought to leave in.

***^Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, from Leaves of Grass, 1855.

****^All right, it’s not fair to make you buy the book just to find that out.  It was Gloria Gaynor, in 1980, for I Will Survive. Disco or not, that’s just an all-time great song. (The Cake cover is pretty good too.)


20 thoughts on “Writing a book: what a long strange trip it’s been

  1. Markus Eichhorn

    Interesting to compare our experiences, albeit with quite different types of book. The radical underestimate of the time it would take is true for me as well, though that applies equally to any manuscripts I’ve written. It sounds as though you got a lot of feedback throughout the process; I appreciate that reviews can be an emotional rollercoaster, but still wish that I’d had more. Finding people to read it proved difficult. Likewise your editor was personally involved and critical throughout. My editor was supportive — the proposal was approved from the first submission — but very much hands-off. I can see that the uncertainty was frustrating in your case, but at least their insights ended up being constructive. Finally, I prepared my own index, which was a time-consuming nightmare (https://treesinspace.com/2015/09/22/consult-the-index). As a result, however, it’s the 10 pages of the textbook of which I’m most proud. I’m still glad that the figure permissions were handled by someone else though.

    Maybe I’ll write a similar post… when I get round to it. There are a number of neglected manuscripts haunting me right now.


  2. sleather2012

    Great post and congratulations. I have always been amazed at how long it actually takes to get books written, you were wise to stick to one author – my Ecology of Insect Overwintering took seven years (three authors) – I have an idea for a scientific writing book but will probably never get round to it, also a How to Run Field Courses book, which will, along with my popular science books probably have to wait until I retire 🙂

    PS yes I am buying copy of your book 🙂


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  4. Mark Vellend

    Just so you know, on amazon.ca, “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought”…

    …wait for it…

    “Ziploc Sandwich Bags – 125-Count [Health and Beauty], CDN$ 41.25” ??

    Congrats on the book.


  5. Brian McGill

    If I read your narrative right, you still cranked out 20 chapters in 18 months. That’s pretty impressive on top of rest of life!


      1. Brian McGill

        The theme amongst your post and the comments of a book taking longer than expected certainly holds in my case. I thought I could do it without a sabbatical, but I increasingly fear it will take a sabbatical to finish it off, fortunately I have one coming up in the not too distant future.


  6. nickdulvy

    So a key question is what is the likely return on investment? There are two ways of looking at this: academic kudos and dosh. Looking back would you have rather written those 15 extra papers (3 per year) than a book? An even more painful question…. are you likely to have made a minimum wage for writing this book? Right I am off to Amazon.ca to buy two copies!


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Nick – that is indeed a key question, and fortunately, it’s easily answered.

      On fkinancial return (“dosh”) – no, I won’t come remotely close to minimum wage. I figure if I sell out the entire print run, my royalties (on average about 6% of sales) will come to perhaps $1/hour (but probably less).

      On academic return – here the payback could be immense. I went through this calculation in my post on academic inclusive fitness (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/academic-inclusive-fitness/). Assume I sell 1/2 the print run, and that 1/4 of the buyers actually read the book. Assume it helps the average reader improve their writing productivity by just 1%. Run the numbers and my writing the book will have added 500 papers to our literature – far outstripping the 15 or so I gave up. (You may not believe that calculation. I didn’t either – but I can’t find a hole in it).

      Thanks for commenting – and for buying copies!


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