The state of science book writing in 2015

Kim Stephens discusses book writing at PDD 2015. Photo by Mollie Rappe
Kim Stephens discusses book writing at PDD 2015. Photo by Mollie Rappe
By Mollie Rappe

From the joy of seeing their books sitting on the shelf to the drudgery of writing 1,000 words each day, no matter what, four authors—panelists John McQuaid, Kimberly Stephens, and Matthew Shaer, along with moderator Michael Chorost—dissected the process of getting a science book published in 2015. Topics ranged from time and money considerations to the rewards of writing a book and the writer-agent relationship.

McQuaid was inspired—while on his Stairmaster thinking about his picky children—to write his second book, Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat. His concept was to explain his children’s bizarre tastes in food. He had tried to get his Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper series Oceans of Trouble, on the world’s threatened fisheries, turned into a book 20 years prior, to no avail. But that effort did lead to forming a fruitful relationship with his current agent, and eventually his first book, Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms, on Hurricane Katrina.

Stephens’ The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent will come out November of this year. Stephens co-wrote the book with her mother, a psychologist. Stephens’ mother studies child prodigies and was approached by an agent after appearing on 60 Minutes. Stephens said she found publisher-imposed deadlines to be the best motivation, and stressed the importance of having a social media “platform” for marketing purposes.

Shaer, now a staff writer for Smithsonian magazine, decided to shape his story “The Sinking of the Bounty,” about the sinking of a reconstructed Bounty during Hurricane Sandy, in a digital format. He had debated pitching a long-form magazine story versus a book, and decided upon neither. He pitched the story to Atavist, a digital magazine-like publisher, and the final form was a 20,000-word story with embedded Coast Guard video and Facebook photos.

For Shaer, the pros of going with the digital-only form were the fast turnaround time compared to a traditional book and the 50 percent royalties. The cons were the lack of a shelf presence—as his favorite part about writing his first (traditional) book was “going into a bookstore and seeing it on the shelf” —and the almost complete dependence upon Amazon. Ninety percent of his sales are through Kindle Singles. Also, he had to print the story in “jumbo-sized print” for his proud grandmother.

Chorost, the session moderator, compared writing a book to climbing a mountain—you get the kind of narrative arc and depth that no amount of article-writing can match. He is working on his third book, which will be about extraterrestrial intelligence. He stressed the importance of finding the right agent for your project; a less-famous agent who works closely with you to craft a proposal can be better than a big-name agent. Chorost’s favorite part of publishing his first book, Rebuilt, on having his cochlear implant installed, was how it let him join a national conversation on technology’s impact on society.

See all PDD 2015 highlights