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Should I self-publish my popular science book?

Image by Nick Morrison from Unsplash
As both a science writer and editor of www.popularscience.co.uk I get quite a few emails asking about writing science books, wondering if self-publishing is a good idea and asking if it's possible to get a review on the popularscience.co.uk site.

Writing a book - typically in the region of 80,000 to 100,000 words - is not a trivial task, but it can be very fulfilling. There are a handful of essential questions to ask yourself before going any further, which add up to 'Why am I the right person to write about this topic?' and 'Why would other people want to read it?' 

As far as being the right person goes, you don't have to be a working scientist to write a good popular science book, but you do need to have a strong understanding of the subject and to be able to present it in a way that others will find accessible. It should be a subject that excites you - if it doesn't, it's very unlikely that you will be able to excite others.

However, there are plenty of subjects that are of interest to us as individuals but that aren't necessarily going to get many other people excited. If you have spent your life studying the life cycle of the lesser spotted snoot-warbler, then I'm sure it fascinates you... but it's hard to turn your knowledge into a narrative that will grip the general reader.

Unless you are a cutting edge working scientist, a real expert in your field, one thing to absolutely avoid is writing about your own personal theories, or telling us why all the scientists out there have got it wrong. Popular science can be used to put across new theories that run counter to the prevailing wisdom - but that approach takes a lot of backing up and is certainly not appropriate for a self-published book.

Honestly assessing your book idea is not easy to do - you have a deep vested interest in it. I would suggest running it by other people, preferably not relations (or me) and asking for honest opinions. One piece of advice from a former literary agent of mine I would really recommend - always ask 'Is this a book or a magazine article?' Can the idea sustain a whole book? To check this, it's important to write out a detailed chapter breakdown of what will be in it, so that you can get a feel for the structure of the book. (This is also hugely valuable when it comes to writing it.)

Once you have your detailed breakdown, I would recommend trying it on a few publishers first. Publishers buy non-fiction titles before they are written - you don't need to produce the whole book up front. Make sure you choose publishers that do have popular science in their output, otherwise you are wasting their time and simply irritating them. They won't make an exception for you.

Be prepared for rejection (or, more likely, for being totally ignored). If that continues to be the case, then it is worth considering self-publishing. This is easy to do now with something like Amazon's KDP, which makes it possible to bring out your book both in physical form and as a Kindle ebook. I have done this for my Stephen Capel series of detective novels - and it's very satisfying to do. But there are a couple of provisos to bear in mind.

Getting published this way does not mean that you will have a bestseller on your hands. I know there are occasional exceptions, but the vast majority of self-published books only sell a few tens of copies to friends and relations. (Actually, even books put out by publishers can often sell only hundreds of copies.) Getting your book to be visible and bought takes a whole lot doing. I know an author who has spent tens of thousands of pounds of his own money publicising a book (which wasn't even self-published). I think he would argue that it was worthwhile - but you have to go into this with your eyes wide open. His decision has resulted in considerably more sales than would otherwise have been the case, but it has certainly not made him rich. Remember that you may well only earn around £1 a copy for each book sold. Always bear in mind how many copies you will have to sell to cover any expenditure on marketing.

This leads us on to the final question of getting reviews. An excellent way to improve a book's visibility is to get it reviewed - but there are relatively few places that review popular science books, including, of course, this website. We have reviewed a handful of self-published books and will always look at a press release for a book if it's sent to info@popularscience.co.uk - but in most cases we won't be able to review it. If we do decide to take a look, we expect to be provided with a physical copy of the book - you can't expect a reviewer to buy a copy, and many reviewers prefer a physical book to an ebook for review purposes.

The last thing I would want to do is put anyone off writing. It can be a wonderful thing to do, and can be extremely rewarding. But please do be aware that most of us will never write a bestseller and will not be made rich by getting published. Popular science books are now being written by an impressively diverse set of writers - and this could include you - but it is essential to be realistic about the likely outcomes.

Feature by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here

Comments

  1. Hi Brian - I wonder if that author who spent £££ publicising a book that was even being published by a proper publisher was me? If not - then all well and good, I am not alone. To all authors, I would strongly advise getting an agent. They will give you the best advice, and as their reputation and livelihood depend on selling books, their advice won't be tinged by anything sentimental or unrealistic. When I received a decent advance for my most recent book, my agent advised spending some of it on hiring professional publicists to get the word out. It's hard to know whether this has made much difference in sales -- one lacks the control experiment - but it DID result in my book getting worldwide exposure in magazines, radio interviews and especially podcasts, which wouldn't have happened had I done everything myself. Of course, when one is writing, the first person you need to please is oneself. But if you are writing for others, it takes a lot of effort in today's crowded market to ensure that these others even know the book is out there, let alone buy it and read it. And for that you need to call in the professionals. And, yes, it hasn't made me rich. I still have the day job.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Cromercrox - as it happens, it was someone else I had in mind, but your advice is very sensible. My main aim here though was for those thinking of spending money on publicising a self-published book, which needs even more caution.

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  2. Hello Brian, That is sound advice, which will be much appreciated by novice writers. Most of my books are self-published. They are not popular science, but tutorial accounts of technical subjects (a few of them have been reviewed here).
    Increasing sales does not have to involve a major book launch, one-off interviews or magazine articles; it can be achieved by a constant low-level advertising campaign using twitter ads, Google ads, and/or Amazon ads (I use twitter and Amazon). It is hard to be certain, but after several years experience, I am fairly sure this low-level advertising increases sales.
    If you do self-publish then get a proof-reader. Irrespective of how good you are at writing, you will never spot all the errors that a proof-reader will find.
    By the way, book piracy is a major problem, which can be reduced (or at least delayed) by publishing paperbacks, rather than ebooks (book piracy reduces sales by about 30% in my experience).
    Finally, never miss an opportunity to let potential readers know where to find your books, for example: https://jamesstone.sites.sheffield.ac.uk/books
    James V Stone, j.v.stone@sheffield.ac.uk.

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