Posted tagged ‘Publishing’

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 13.0: Prelude to Science Online 2010’s Book/Blog session.

January 14, 2010

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 AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at, 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.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.0: Blurbs redux

June 17, 2009

So, when we last left this journal, I promised to get to the point on the dark art of blurbing. 

Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is by far my  best-blurbed book, boasting enthusiastic and generous praise from a very diverse crew of luminaries — (David Bodanis, Junot Díaz, Timothy FerrisBrian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Sylvia Nasar, and Neal Stephenson).

This follows, as I wrote last time, a much sparser field of those who promoted my three previous books.  How — and why — did I go for this level of long-lead pre-publication encouragement?

The how first:  I began to contact potential blurbers as I was finishing the editor’s revisions to my first-submission mss.  That’s nine months before publication — four or five months earlier than I had in the past, following publishers’ schedules of bound galley production.

Again the reasoning behind this can be found in diary entry 8.0 — basically, if you plan to ask busy people for a favor, best to do so in a time frame that gives them more of a chance to say “yes” than plead the press of prior commitments.

What this choice meant was that I was sending a version of my book that was at least two, and really three passes short of being done.  It wasn’t typeset.  It did not possess the form factor of a book.  All of which meant that I was asking a double favor:  that someone should read my work and that they should do so  in an inconvenient form.*

So, step one was simply to render my mss. as readable as possible.  Book Antiqua font, printed double sided at 1.5 line spacing, a photocopy of the cover design to front it inside a Kinko’s black spiral binding with a clear plastic front  — i.e. a pretty standard “I’m trying here” manuscript package.

Step two was to identify a couple of people who might be willing to read with charity — knowing that what they were seeing was still unfunished.  That means personal friends and/or those who have made it clear that they are supporters of my body of work and this project.

Critically:  the ask has to be open-ended, imho:  you enquire of those already well-disposed to you if they are willing to do you an unusually large favor (large with reference to this favor-space), or whether they would prefer to wait until the galleys come along.  Minimize the chance that they will say no to your first ambition, in other words, in a way that will make it more difficult to come back at a later date for help from someone reasonably inclined to deliver.

So that’s what I did, with three folks on my short list.  First up was David Bodanis, author of E=MC2, and much else besides.  David and I met about five years ago at an Aspen Institute event celebrating the Einstein miracle year centennial, and it was one of those instant friendships.  He’s a great, funny, incredibly smart-and-quick guy, and we share a lot of the same interests and personlity tics (for good and ill…but that’s a different story).

He and I are serendipitously-met are personal as well as professional friends, in other words, and that made it possible just to call him and ask him both to read the mss. as a fellow writer, providing a reality check, and, assuming it wasn’t in his eyes a disaster, to give me a very early blurb.

A call from my then-editor Rebecca Saletan made the timing more important than I had first expected.  Despite the usual wait-for-it counsel I had already received on blurbs, when I told her in early September, 2008, that David had liked the mss. she immediately asked for his blurb so that she could use it in her presentation to the sales conference for HMH’s spring list.

And that gets to one of the “whys” of blurbing


Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter): Outsourced Whatever Edition

June 9, 2009

Just a quick heads up that John Scalzi, whose Whatever blog I should have blogrolled long ago* (it’s up there now), has posted an essay of mine in his “Big Idea” feature about the back story of how I came to write Newton and the Counterfeiter.

The Big Idea feature is  (a) a very canny way in which Scalzi gets a very wide range of people to write meaty posts about what lies behind their books, writing process and so on, thus takinga bit of the blogging load off and (b) a grand resource for anyone who likes to think about reading and writing.  (See the Big Idea archive here.)

Check it out.  A native Diary feature will pop up in this space later today.

*The reason I feel delinquent in getting Scalzi’s blog up on my roll is because of the project that introduced me to his stuff.  This one.   Photos here.  It’s his account — a viciously humorous rationalist’s take — on the Creation Museum.  Devastating and coke-through-the-nose funny.  Reading it made me buy one of the limited edition of You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing sight unseen, both because of the voice and as a way to express thanks for such an awesome take down.  Scalzi posted his Great Turkish Bombard blast demolishing the museum (or at least its pretentions)  in November, 2007, about a month before I started blogging, so I never quite got around to remembering to link it.  I’m haphazard that way in any event, and am glad of this occasion to rectify the omission.

Image:  John William Godward, “La Pensierosa” (The Thinker), 1913.

What Happens When You Publish A Book: Newton and the Counterfeiter/Tom’s personal experience no. 0.0

May 15, 2009

Longish title to announce the start of a series of posts aimed at providing one writer’s account of what happens in publishing a trade non-fiction book.

This post is background/procedural.  It’s going up at the same time as post 1.o, which actually contains some useful information (sez who? — ed.)

So:   This series focuses on publishing the thing, not writing it.  No doubt, some of my writing process will slip in, but what I want to do here is give a soup -nuts (AKA feeding time at the asylum) treatment of what it happens to take an idea and turn it into a block of thinly sliced dead tree, available for purchase.

This is a follow up, long overdue, to the session at Science Online ’09 that Dave Munger and I led on going “Blog to Book”  My excuse for the lag time is that I was actually finishing my first book to be published after I started blogging — it’s called Newton and the Counterfeiter, as most readers of this blog have probably figured out by now.

Dave and I had expected that those at our session would want to talk about the nitty-gritty of how to get a book published (and how to get paid enough to write it).  Instead, we spent most of our time in discussion on the deeper conceptual question of what it takes on the level of idea and writing practice to go from the scale of a blog  to a sustained text a couple of orders of magnitude longer than a single post.

So what I’m going to do here and in a number of posts to follow over the next two or three weeks is to go through some of what Dave and I imagined we’d talk about.  I’m going to start at the beginning in this post with a look at the proposal process; I’ll step back in future posts to the pre-history of a proposal in giving my take on the dread topic of agents.

Then I’ll go through the steps I went through to deal with each stage of the publishing process.  I’ll begin with what happens (for me) to deal with the editing and revision process.  Then it will be on to what happens after the writing is done and attention shifts to the problem of producing the book in the form you like.

The next phase — the one I’m actually in the middle of right now, is the process of getting a finished text-and-package (aka, the hardbound book of the sort that just arrived in boxes at my house yesterday) the attention it needs to find any kind of an audience.  I’ll talk there about my evolution from book 1 to book 4 in problems like getting blurbs; thinking about hiring a publicist; producing other materials, even other media to accompany the book and so on.

That last sentence provokes a bit of background.  I’m on to my fourth book with the Newton tome.  I love my first three texts/children still.*  Each taught me important lessons ranging from the rich content I learned to write them to what reserves I had to create to survive the long slow process of each one.  None of them were huge — o.k. even small — successes in sales terms, though each received enough serious praise to keep me going (and more importantly, to keep publishers willing to pay me for each passing book on the hopes that prior performance was no predictor of future returns).  The real purpose of this series is to capture some of those lessons.

One last preliminary, the obvious one.  This series is an account of my personal experience.  I hope it will answer some questions, including some of those raised in the hallways in Raleigh back in January.  There are lots of ways to get books out of one’s head and into readers’ hands.  I’m not trying to provide a comprehensive view of all of them.  I will reach out to some of my bookish friends to see if they want to add their concurring or dissenting views, but the key fact to remember is that you should take whatever appears here as one subjective point fo view

*Ignore Death of a Star.  I’ve tried to correct Amazon on this before, but that title refers to a pamphlet spun off from a NOVA film about Supernova 1987a for which I wrote an NSF proposal.  I had nothing at all to do with the document listed here.

Image: Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Still-Life of Books, 1628.