By Lesley Evans Ogden
Have you ever thought about writing a non-fiction book? It’s a daunting undertaking, but for many published book authors, it’s also a rewarding one.
In April 2018, Science Writers and Communicators of Canada held their annual conference in Vancouver. During that conference, I moderated a session on book publishing. The three authors on the panel have all written books with science-related themes, but their advice and experiences are useful for anyone considering non-fiction book publishing. Below is some of their advice to wannabe book writers. These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
First, a quick introduction to the panelists:
Mark Winston is a Professor and Senior fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue and is also a Professor of Biological Sciences. Mark is one of the world’s leading experts on bees and pollination and is a recipient of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for his nonfiction book Bee Time: Lessons From The Hive. Winston also works with student scientists and other professionals and writers to develop nonfiction writing from proposals and newspaper opinion pieces to manuscripts and books.
Adrienne Mason is managing editor at Hakai magazine and was previously a freelance writer and editor. She helped launch and was the managing editor at KNOW: the science magazine for curious kids. Mason writes for adults and children. She has authored over 30 books on science, natural history and the cultural history of the West Coast. Her most recent book is Long Beach Wild published by Greystone in 2012.
Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist who covers business environment and the politics of natural resources. His special interests are energy, mines and oceans and he has written for National Geographic, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail. He also works for the Tyee where he’s been a contributing editor since 2008. Pollon’s first book, The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam, was published in late 2016.
Can you walk us through the process from idea in your head to securing a book contract. What’s the first step?
AM: Like in journalism, there’s a difference between an idea and a story. One thing that people often don’t realize is that for nonfiction you don’t actually have to write the book before you go to the publisher. You do have to have a really, really good idea and a really good outline and maybe a sample chapter or two. But there’s a lot of work that goes into digging into that initial idea. Why are you the person to write it? Why would the public want to know that? What is the competition and why is your book different? And then there’s starting to map out your approach. At that can take a long time.
MW: The very first thing I would advise is to figure out if you really have the discipline and focus to carry the project through. Is your life set up in such a way that you can devote a good bit of your time for a long time, with your full attention, with the total presence that it takes to write a book? I’m guessing that everyone in this room has two or three ideas for a book they’d like to write, but the first thing I’d ask yourself is, ‘am I really in a position to do this? Or might I be better off just writing much shorter pieces?’ In fact, if you’re not an experienced book writer, one bit of advice I would give you is to write a magazine piece first about the topic. That’s a way of you getting yourself immersed in the literature, so that agents and publishers will take you seriously. But it’s also a way of cutting your teeth on the topic and seeing if it is really something you want to devote two or three or four years of your life to.
CP: A couple of years ago I got fired up about a book idea and spent a fair amount of energy doing research. I even thought about chapters in my mind and I was excited about it. What ended up happening was there was a competing title – a book that was almost a carbon copy of my concept that I thought was so original. So for anyone with book ideas, I’d recommend checking a database called “Books In Print,” available at libraries. Most libraries would have it as a free database and you can go on that and find out what’s been published already. You can also use keywording on Amazon, but just see what’s out there and what’s been published on the subject. See if what you want to write about has been saturation covered so you don’t waste your time and energy. That’s what I did – I wasted a whole pile of time. I ended up writing journalism about some of those things, so it wasn’t a waste of time really, but find out what’s been written about [your story] and how you could approach it differently if you want to go forward.
How do you find a publisher?
MW: That’s a hard one. If you’re interested in publishing with a big press, like Random House, and you don’t have any real connections, these days, you can’t get in the door without an agent. There are still a lot of publishers that will look at your manuscript without an agent, but most of the really large ones won’t. So the first thing I’d be thinking about is ‘what kind of publisher do I want?’ If it is a big one, then I’d back up one step and find an agent – which I’ve never had by the way.
AM: When you think you’re ready you need to look at publishers and what they’re publishing. It’s just like in journalism – I can tell as a magazine editor if you haven’t taken the time to look at what we do already. It makes me less inclined to actually look at what you’re telling me. Also look at recently published books that you admire and see who published it. Most publisher sites have “submission guidelines.” Read those for tips on how to approach them. I’ve never had an agent either. But it is going to depend a little bit on the publisher. In Canada it is probably a little easier to be un-agented.
CP: My experience was unique. I did a wilderness trip and I was out in the woods for about two weeks and I came back with two giant steno pads just filled with absolutely everything. That’s my process. I kind of “saturation report” and then transcribe my notes, writing along the way. I thought this might’ve been a long form magazine piece at first. But then, over the space of about three months, I had about 15,000 words that I had broken into chapters. So then what I did was look around at publishers that I thought would publish it. Most were smaller, regional publishers, so I went to their websites to look at the books they would publish, and I looked at their submission guidelines, and crafted a proposal. One of my friends lent me their proposal for a book that had been published, and I can’t underestimate how valuable that is — even just to know that someone else is doing this because you feel really alone at that point in the process and it is easy to lose your nerve. You have to believe in yourself and push forward. And your writing has to show that [confidence] as well.
What are publishers looking for in a pitch?
MW: They want to know that you have a platform. I only just learned this word with my Bee Time book. I didn’t have a platform – a website or blog. I wasn’t using Facebook in a professional way. But publishers want to know, do you have an audience already? Do you already reach out? What have you published already? Do you have a track record as a writer? They’re looking for that. And, of course, they’re looking at your topic and idea. Is this something contemporary that could really sell?
AM: Who are you? Why are you the person to write this book? You may never have written a book before – you’ve got to start somewhere. But a lot of times books come out of essays or pieces that have already been written. Being a writer, more and more, you are expected to have some sort of social media presence. It’s not a requirement, but it helps. They’ve got to be convinced it’s going to sell.
CP: Timing is critical. My book was based around a news event. It was a big mega-dam called the Site C Dam on the Peace River in the northeast corner of British Columbia, and so the issue was just heating up when I pitched the book. For the next two years after it was published, this issue was top of mind in British Columbia. So, there was luck in that timing. But you need to look at timing if you’re going to peg the book on an issue or something like that [with a critical time window].
AM: Yeah because, writing time aside, it’s probably going to be two years to get published – depending on illustrations — maybe less.
MW: If you want to look into publishing a book and want to know if you have a good idea, there are also manuscript development programs like those at Humber College. SFU also has a writer’s studio, with workshops to help you with non-fiction manuscripts. UBC has similar programs. Worth checking out.
So a publisher likes your pitch. What happens next?
CP: I got a phone call from the publisher and he was interested in the book but was very concerned about how quickly I could write. The timeline I had was more like six months. I ended up delivering to them a draft of about 20,000 words and the book ended up being about 40,000 words. So the conversation then went to the subject of an advance. I will not say how much they gave me, but it was low, and what I did was what I do with everything in journalism — I negotiated a higher fee. So I got the go ahead, signed the contract, and over the next 4 to 5 months I was deep into the writing.
AM: If they say yes. You say, okay, and you work out the details – advance, royalties, and when you will deliver it, and they put it in the production schedule. I’ve done a lot of children’s books over the years and they are illustrated, so that’s a whole other level of stuff that has to be done… Then the details of the work start to unfold.
MW: I’m a person who unfortunately really, really likes to be on time. And when you have a book, once you have a contract, there are deadlines. And I’ve always felt like as part of my professionalism, I should meet those deadlines. And you have to figure out how that’s going to fit into your life.
Audience question: For those of us that have expenses, like food, and so on, the advances can be low.
AM: Are low. [laughter]
Audience question: How do you get through that period in terms of food and so on?
AM: I’ve written everything off the side of my desk, while doing something else. I’m not going to lie with respect to the finances. It’s a tough go. So you really have to be committed. It’s about chipping away at things. The ideal is to have a 4 to 6 months, or a year, but the reality is you might have to write half an hour a day for 3 years. And your advance depends on the publisher. Six figure advances are NOT common. It’s an advance against money earned [by the publisher]. Maybe you have a partner that can pay the bills? I hate to say that, but it takes time, and dedication. I don’t want to lie to you.
Since none of you have agents, are you negotiating your own contracts?
CP: My contract was boilerplate, though I didn’t know that at the time. What I did was I had a friend who had written a book for that same publisher so we got together and he brought his contract and I brought mine, and we compared. So I don’t even know I if got a great deal in the broader picture. I just know that I didn’t get a worse deal than him [ laughter].
MW: I’ve negotiated all my own contracts. And at the level that I’m writing at, there’s not a lot to negotiate. The only thing you can negotiate, really, is an advance, and we’re talking about differences of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.
AM: The Writer’s Union of Canada has documents that talk about how to negotiate a fair contract.
Audience question: Everyone is cautious to talk about numbers, but can you give us a range of magnitude in terms of advances you’ve been given as advances?
MW: $800 Canadian to $3500 US. But I never push for anything else because I don’t need it.
AM: $7000 was the highest. I don’t think I ever got zero. [But she knows of others who have].
CP: Mine was in that range. But I have to caution you because anyone that asks a freelancer about money is pretty much begging to be lied to. [audience laughter]
AM: The thing is. It is an advance against royalties. So when I get $10,000, then when the book comes out you’re not getting any more until that $10,000 is paid out. It may never happen. I’ve never had a book that didn’t pay out its royalties, but I’ve been lucky in that regard. I know some writers that get their advance and then they never see another penny. So that’s important to understand.
So you have a contract to start writing a book. What does that look like on an hour to hour, day-to-day, week to week basis? How you organize your writing process?
MW: My first five books were written beginning at 5am. I’m an early riser and I would get up at 5, make coffee, and write for 2 or 3 hours, and then my daughter would get up and we’d have breakfast. My last book, the one coming out in May, was written in coffee shops in the afternoons. I have no idea why I switched. But the important thing is a dedicated piece of time – “book time”– where almost nothing but a huge family emergency will interrupt you. Books can be written a few paragraphs a day.
AM: I’m an early riser as well. So can get up at five and go right to my desk. But my pattern was no pattern. [You write when you can]. I wrote in the margins of my other work and raising a family, so you just know you have to get it done… My big challenge is I love research – so it’s hard to stop that and start writing… I would beg my husband to take the children away for the weekend, or something. It was a sad day when my older daughter decided she also liked early mornings… [laughter]
CP: I had to plan all the writing of my draft around paid assignments. So sometimes I had more time than others. Often it was weekends on Sunday. I’d often start early and just avoid my family. [laughter]
AM: We’re making it sound so appealing. [laughter]
MW: You know, Carol Shields, the great Canadian writer, wrote a number of her first books only when her children were napping. And… she did okay. [laughter].
To wrap up, what has been your greatest joy or reward in book writing?
CP: I dreamed about it for a long time, and I had a few false starts. So the first copy ever I held was kind of important. And I did a reading in Toronto where my family was at it, and it was really well attended, and it was great. It felt worth it at that point.
AM: That first book is pretty exciting. I can’t look at my books, actually, when they [first] come out because I’m afraid I’ll find something. Because I wrote so much for children, I did a ton of school visits. And you’re a super star to them. Kids will say things like, “You wrote that book. Do you know JK Rowling?” So that was lovely, and very gratifying. Other books, like my one on Long Beach, is a place I’m very passionate about, and I felt I had something to say to offer to the conversation, so that was very gratifying. That was a real labour of love.
MW: Three things. First: readers. By writing books, I’ve built relationships with so many people. And that’s been really important to me. Second thing… In terms of gratification, two days ago my box of books arrived, and I opened it and pulled the book out. It’s been a while since I wrote it, and all of a sudden it’s here. That moment that you hold the book in your hands… it’s just extraordinary. Last thing I’ll say. My fifth book was about genetically modified crops. A lot of work. And when I was done, I told my publisher, “I’m done. I’m not writing any more books.” And he just looked at me and said, “writers write.” [laughter] It’s an intangible. I don’t know if I could describe it any better than that. The whole process [of book writing] becomes so integral to who you are… Do it.
And on that positive note, thanks, panelists, for sharing these insights, and many more.
#SWCCan2018 was the hashtag for this conference if you wish to check out the Twitter stream.
Lesley Evans Ogden is science journalist based in the burbs of Vancouver. She writes for magazines and online news sites like New Scientist, Science News, Natural History, Science, Nature, BBC Earth, BBC Future, and Scientific American, and co-produces science documentaries for television. Apart from writing about environmental science, animal behaviour, science policy, and the intersection of science and human rights, Lesley enjoys writing about the challenges of freelancing, including how, if we all stand up for each other, we can fight crummy contracts, find cool venues for our ideas and create better working conditions for creatives. Say hello on Twitter @ljevanso
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