Writing a Book: The Idea, The Proposal, and Publishing

As I noted the other day, Brian, Michael, and I are starting what we hope to be a conversation about science books, science book writing, and science book publishing. The initial topic is on how to make a technical (and possibly, seemingly obscure) topic accessible, exciting, and of interest to a publisher, as well as to readers. As with Michael’s post, this turned out a bit longer than I expected.

This is an idea that writers constantly wrestle with; most of us recognize that we will be more passionate about a subject than most of our readers, so how do we entice/interest others in our topic. To me a key word is passion. If you can’t convey your passion for the subject, why would anyone else want to follow you.

For Stories in Stone and for the book proposal I am working on right now, I have tried to put this to the test. I talked about my book topic to friends and family and saw what interested them. What aspects of the story did they pick up on? What did they want to know more about? When did their eyes glaze over? Talking about the subject also helped me realize when my eyes were glazing over, when I didn’t fully understand what I hoped to write about, and what just didn’t feel right.

Good research is one means of expressing your passion. Dive into your topic, learn as much as you can, see how others have written about it, find the connections. These can help show a publisher that you are serious about your subject and that you are willing to do the work to tell a good story. Research will also give you the characters to flesh out your story and to pull away from the purely technical or obscure.

Readers like to relate to people. The best science writing doesn’t hit you directly over the head with the science. You will have a better chance of enticing people into the subject if they can connect with the human element. One way to think of this is to think of slipping science in the back door or weaving it into the overall fabric of the story through the people who experienced the science.

That being said, it is critical to keep the science in the book. Don’t dumb it down or omit it just because it is challenging. If we don’t put in the science, who will? Think of it as a conversation. Sure you can drop in the big words, but do so sparingly. Challenge your readers and maybe have some fun with them by using humor.

Ultimately, what is going to make a complicated or obscure subject appeal to publishers and readers is the story you have to tell. As my agent puts it, give the reader a reward for following along. Don’t just list all the cool things about your subject but write so that the reader wants to get to the end, to see how the story plays out. If the reader can learn something or have a new way of viewing or relating to the subject, that is even better.

The reason that Michael’s book has been so well received is that everyone has seen sand and can relate it, and after reading Sand, every reader will look at sand with new eyes and a new appreciation. Furthermore, it is clear that Michael is a bit nutty about sand and that he has done the research to tell his story. As I read the book, I could easily imagine wanting to be out the field with him and hearing him tell me about sand.

Part 2 – The proposal.

The basics of the proposal are somewhat formulaic: what is the book about, who you are, or why you are the person to write the book; marketing; inspiration and competition. My proposal for Stories in Stone ran to around 60 to 65 pages. It started with a broad opening to the subject, followed by a short section on how I would approach the subject. I also included a brief outline, detailed descriptions (600-900 words) of each chapter, and one full chapter. The chapter isn’t always necessary but for an unknown author it is. You have to show that you can write. The marketing, about the author, and inspiration and competition sections took up just four pages of my proposal.

A few thoughts on agents. You must have an agent to work with a national publisher. For my previous books, The Street-Smart Naturalist and A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country, both of which were published by regional presses, I did not have an agent. I just sent the standard proposal in to the publishers. I was rejected numerous times for each.

In regard to my agent, I was fairly lucky finding one. A fellow author and friend had recommended me to his agent, who was open to me sending in a proposal to her. I submitted a very short proposal (about three pages) and after she agreed to represent me, we spent the next six months fashioning the one she sent out to publishers. My agent was critical in helping me put together this proposal. It wasn’t always fun as I was reduced to tears at times trying to come up with a compelling way to show that my technical/obscure subject would be interesting to more than just a few geo-geeks.


Regional and university presses: As noted earlier, you can usually submit a proposal without an agent to these presses. The down side is that such publishers usually offer a smaller advance, have a smaller marketing budget and perhaps less editing. And, at least in the case of my book, The Street-Smart Naturalist, the company could go bankrupt. The advantages can be the reputation of the press, particularly for a university press and that you are a bigger fish in the sea so you may get more energy devoted to promotion.

Self-publishing: This has certainly gotten easier in the past few years but still has some pitfalls. Newspapers might not review self-published books, not that newspapers are the only reviewers. There may be some skepticism about “Oh, you couldn’t get someone else to publish it so you had to do it yourself.” Also, you have to pay for things like editing, design, and indexing. You have to handle all publicity and marketing and store the books. That being said, my one experience, which is maybe not reflective of the industry as whole has been good. In the early 1990s I produced a guide book to a very popular mountain bike/4wd trail, which has sold upwards of 10,000 books. We have had dumb luck in that no one else has produced another guide and the area we wrote about became highly regulated so that all who go on the trail have to pass through a national park visitor center, which carries the book.

Again, any thoughts on my comments or Michael’s (Through the Sandglass) and Brian’s (Laelaps) would be great.

7 thoughts on “Writing a Book: The Idea, The Proposal, and Publishing”

  1. "Nutty"???

    Well, I suppose you're right – you have to be a bit nutty about your subject to embark on – and survive – the process of writing a book about it!

    Again, as with Brian's post, some interesting intersections with my experience (or "intercalations" as we have enjoyed before).

  2. Michael,
    Perhaps Nutty was not the best word but it is what I would use to describe my passion for building stone, as well. I am a bit nuts over stone! Yes, interesting the intersections and the different takes on the subject.

  3. Nice post, David. I liked what you said about making the story easy to relate to. One of the reasons that I really enjoyed Deborah Blum's 'The Poisoner's Handbook' was because she used human stories (murder, betrayal, false accusations, all that good stuff) to bring out the science. By talking about poisons in the daily lives of people in jazz-age New York she took an obscure subject (the birth of forensic toxicology) and made it very interesting.

    Naturally not every subject will lend itself to this kind of storytelling, but it is important to provide reference points. That's why, when selecting groups of fossil animals to talk about in my book, I selected groups with living representatives that the average reader will be familiar with. This provides a shared frame of reference and a kind of familiarity that makes storytelling easier.

    A thread that I see running through all our posts today is that even in science writing, storytelling is important. Without a narrative it is easy to simply create a list that, at best, becomes just another academic tome. If you really want to get the public's attention you need to identify a good story and become an expert at telling it.

  4. I love writing and reading books. I love the notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else. One of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

  5. David – I noticed that you mentioned having to pay for the index as one of the disadvantages of self-publishing. Well, I had to pay for the index for my book with UCP – it eventually worked out as $1450! And I substantially improved it for the UK edition (the format and pagination was different, so my wife and I had to go through the truly soul-destroying task of redoing each entry anyway).

  6. Michael,
    I should mention that I also had to pay for the indexing for Stories in Stone, which I didn't find out until I got my first royalty statement, nearly six months after the book came out. So perhaps I should change my post to reflect that writers may end up having to pay for indexing, no matter who pays.

  7. Wow – that must have been a surprise! At least I knew what I was in for – and it didn't leave much out of my first (and so far, only) royalty payment!

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