I’ve been a little slow to update my series of posts about the practice and emotional reality of publishing a (would-be) popular book on science. (Ya think? — Ed.)
But its time to get back into it for several reasons.
The first is that I’ve got more to say — about what to do in the face of the collapse of serious book journalism within the US mass media; about reviewers and the question of whether and how to respond (no and carefully, if you can go a little Red Queen on me just now); on the kindness of strangers; on the second book crisis, which is a subset of the next book conundrum; and probably some other stuff that will occur to me as I start scribbling all these.
The second is that Science Online 2010 is on hand. That’s the annual conference that started as a science blogging meeting, championed by the indomitable North Carolina-based duo of Bora Zikovic and Anton Zuiker, and is now, still led by the same pair, with a lot of help, become a vibrant meeting engaging a wide range of questions about the interaction of science and the web.
That’s relevant because Rebecca Skloot (whose book, The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks, is on the verge of publication, and is fantastic), Brian Switek, (up and running on his first book, born in part of writing to be found here) and I will be leading a session titled “From Blog to Book” at the unFSMly hour of 9 a.m. this coming Saturday, January 16.
And third, of course, I want to continue to draw attention to the book whose passage to its readers this diary documents. That would be my true-crime tale, Newton and the Counterfeiter, which as ever, can be found at Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound and across the pond at Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store.
As noted above, there’s a lot of stuff I want to cover, and not being sure quite where to start, I guess the context of the Science Online meeting pushes me towards a few scattered thoughts on the enormous problem all of us book-fetishists face in connecting a book to its audience.
As before, any entry on this theme has to be in part a confession of failure. I began this blog about eighteen months before my book was due to come out, and I did so for several reasons. Mostly, I felt — and still do, vehemently — that science as a tool for making sense of daily life gets short shrift in the whole range of public and civic debates we have in this country. My first real post on this blog was on the gap between what neuroscience was telling us about the pathology of mental injuries suffered in combat and the way the US military was dealing with victims of such injuries.
Since then, I’ve written about how important it is to use even the simplest of quantitative tools — grade school arithmetic — to grasp the meaning of reports like casualty levels in Iraq, and the essential nature of a commitment to empirical research to deal with just about any civic issue.
I’ve gotten more purely political at times than I had intended — partly as a result of an almost completely debilitating obsession with the election of 2008. And I have tried to maintain my connection to my core intellectual pleasure, the history of science, but the presenting face of the blog is captured in the tag line: “Science and the Public Square.”
But there is no doubt that from the start, I knew that I would use this blog to help bring my upcoming book to folks’ notice in any way that I could.
As an aside: one piece of advice I do have for writers planning to start blogs specifically to aid their upcoming book projects — don’t. At least don’t imagine that blog created simply to promote a specific book is going to do much for you. Either your book is already attracting attention, in which case the blog won’t hurt but won’t add much value for the time taken to do it right, or your book is struggling to find traction, and a brand new blog is not usually an immediately effective way to reach much of an audience. Especially if the blog is explicitly built around the work that already isn’t getting enough play.
Actually, that’s not really a digression: one of the points of starting my blog long before my book was out, and of using it to stretch my wings over a wider territory than the book itself was to see if I could enter a community of bloggers and readers who would then be sufficiently interested in my take on the world to respond to the book when it became a major focus.
And in that, this effort succeeded, to a great extent, at least as I see it. I’ve made a bunch of blog friends over the last two years, and a number of carbon based ones as well, a subset of that group. I’ve interacted with a bunch of different web presences and audiences, and yes, a number of people responded to my book on their websites over the summer and fall. (I’m very remiss in posting the relevant links with thanks to all who did so. I will.)
And it succeeded in another way. One of the odd things about writing a book is that there are long stretches of time in the production process when you are not writing, really. That’s most true after you submit your rewrite to your editors, and the production process really begins. I find it hard to do more than preparatory work on a next book while one is still in the making — more on that in a post or two — so that leaves me with a lot of days when I don’t have anything I “have” to write. So from early on I used my blog as a kind of methadone for book writing addiction; not quite the same thing as working out a long form narrative, but still, every day a venue to fill with words and thoughts.
But I failed to use my blog to best effect.
I mean, I meant well, and I started out on the right track with my “Friday Isaac Newton” blogging. But I didn’t keep it up, and if there is one thing every blogger knows, (I say, speaking from my one data point, more or less) it is that the blogging marathon requires the stamina and sheer imaginative will to deliver on such promises week in and week out.
And in that I think I lost a significant opportunity to build a community of readers around the core passions that led me to write my book. I do know that a couple of the posts I did write in that series remain among the most popular of anything I’ve written — especially the one in which I posted my photographs of Newton’s childhood home and the apple tree that may have been implicated in his first thoughts about gravity. It still pulls in hits every day, and has had almost 27,000 unique views over the last two years. And while that’s clearly the best performing such single post, I have no doubt that if I had put up some cool bit of Newtoniana most weeks on Friday, it would have both been fun and useful to the project of publicizing the fact that a book illuminating some truly wild facets of the great man’s career was on the horizon.
If you want to see how it works when someone does get this right, or at least more nearly so than I, check out Jen Luc Picard, AKA Jennifer Ouellette, whose book, The Calculus Diaries has just entered the production process. She will also be presenting at Science Online 2010, as it happens, and in the post announcing that and other bits of excitement in her life, she gives her readers a partial list of links to the posts she used to develop the ideas in her upcoming book.
That’s how to build long-distance buzz. And what Jennifer did is exemplary in my view because it was real (as I tried to make my Newton posts as well, certainly) — by which I mean that what she wrote on the blog materially shaped what she came to think about as she wrote her book.
(In my case it was somewhat different — I used the blog to write some of the Newton stuff I loved but did not fit into the sharply defined (I hope) narrative of the book. But the principle is the same: this was stuff I was thinking about and wanted to express, and not simply puffery for the book to come.) And at the same time, each of Jennifer’s posts served to whet appetite for the larger work to come. Good buzz; smart writing. So I guess my advice to anyone else would be (as always, it’s worth what you pay for it): do what I say, not what I did.
In my next post I’ll write about why I think this kind of long range preparation is absolutely essential, and yet may never be good enough. Hint — it’s because the old channels through which book conversations used to pass have mostly gone…and I’m not so sure the brave new world in which we live has figured out how to replace it just yet. There is an alternative hypothesis…but that’s for yet another post.
(Oh — and I do plan soon to turn to a specific concern I’ve been getting some questions about promotional videos for books — like this one I made about Newton’s London. (Click on the “video” button on the right side of the page if you’re interested.)
In the meantime, see some of you at the Radisson in Research Triangle. Science Online 2010, here we come.
Image: Mathieu-Ignace van Brée, “George Cuvier,” before 1832.