I’ve written and published two books now – The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider – and wow, have I learned a lot. I’ve learned about scientific writing and about Latin names, yes; but I’ve also learned a lot about the process of writing and publishing books. It’s a lot of fun – but it’s also a lot of work that doesn’t make you rich (well, unless you’re Dan Brown or Stephen King or Barbara Cartland).
I was naively surprised to learn that writing a book and having it published is really just the beginning. A book needs to find its way to its readers, and it’s not easy to get the word out. Many thousands of books are published every year. A few blockbusters have major publicity campaigns, but most – especially books from small presses, or university presses, have modest publicity or none at all. For Charles Darwin’s Barnacle, for example, I’m lucky to have a publicist working to spread the word about my book (to offer it for book reviews, and me for media interviews, for example) but there’s no book tour, no glossy magazine advertising campaign, no late-night talk-show appearances. (I did say “naively surprised”, remember.)
If you’ve read a book and liked it, or if you think book publishing in general is worth supporting, here are six easy ways to help a little – six easy ways to make an author happy.
- Buy the book. (Yes, this one is obvious). Even better: pre-order it, before its release. Bookstores make decisions in part based on pre-order data; so when people order a book even before it’s released, it makes a big difference.
- If you can’t buy it, ask your library to. Copies in libraries get people talking about a book, and that helps sustain a book’s momentum. (Plus, libraries are awesome.)
- Rate and review the book on Amazon and Goodreads (for instance, for Charles Darwin’s Barnacle, here or here). Books with more ratings and reviews attract more readers, and show up higher in the mysterious algorithms that offer books to buyers. That’s true, by the way, even if you aren’t giving the highest rating – so be honest!
- Tell your friends about the book; or post about it on social media. And if you do the latter – tag the author! I love seeing someone tweet about one of my books – especially if it comes with a photo of the book “in the wild” – on your bookshelf, on your nightstand, or in your hand.
- Use the author’s link to the book. Royalties are tiny. Many authors make a little extra by participating in “affiliate programs” with booksellers to get a small share of sales when they refer buyers. It doesn’t affect the price you pay. (Full disclosure: I’m one of “many authors” on this one.). And you may not realize this: the author gets that small share of whatever you buy, even if you navigate away from the book you first land on. That means that if you’re buying anything on line, you can do an author a favour by starting with their link. Bookmark a link posted by your favourite author, and use it every time you shop!
- Tell the author you’ve read their book (and, if you can do so honestly, that you liked it). I love to hear from folks who have read one of my books – whether via a tweet, an email, or an in-person conversation. I don’t know if any author ever gets famous enough not to appreciate hearing from readers. (I do know that I’ll never get famous enough to find out.)
Doing any of these things is a good idea any time. But doing any of these things is an even better idea right now, especially for recent books that had the misfortune to launch during the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has upended all of our lives; and I realize that its effects on books are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. But: book launches, readings and seminars have been cancelled, libraries are closed, and media outlets have less air time (or fewer column inches) to talk about books.* So if you can give a recent book a little boost, its author will be even happier than usual.
That goes for my own book, of course, but not only for mine. Just as a few examples, here are some other small-press science and natural history books that could use your help at the moment:
- Keriann McGoogan’s Chasing Lemurs (Prometheus Books)
- Kelly Brenner’s Nature Obscura (Mountaineers Books)
- Eric Wanger’s After the Blast (University of Washington Press)
- Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing (Yale University Press) (OK, this was released a little bit pre-pandemic, but it’s marvellous.)
Do you have another recent book to suggest? Because dropping that suggestion here in the Replies is yet another way you could make an author happy.
© Stephen Heard April 29, 2020
By the way, many of you have done one or more of these things for my books. Thank you.
Image: Happy © Erica Joy CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com
*^Here in Canada, one absolutely fabulous response from the arts community has been a series called #CanadaPerforms, which has sponsored livestream concerts and book readings under the aegis of the National Arts Centre. I’ll be livestreaming a reading fromCharles Darwin’s Barnacle on Sunday, May 3rd at 6 p.m. Eastern time. You can find it (or watch it later) through my Facebook page, or through the National Arts Centre’s.