I have just read a post by my friend Mr B. C. of Swindon, who as you’ll both be aware is a popular science writer of some distinction (you can sample his books on his Amazon Author Page). A random caller asked him what it took to become a popular science writer. Reading his post cast me back to my own motivations for writing books. They varied hugely in each case.
My first ever book was a tiny field guide, the Letts Pocket Guide to Fossils. This was one of those ‘packaged’ books in a series in which the writer gets a flat fee for writing it, with no royalty – rather like a journalistic commission. A friend of mine, working as a freelance at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N, had been commissioned to do it, but couldn’t, in the end, spare the time, and passed it on to me. It was a fairly pain-free introduction to writing books, and made a respectable dent in a month’s credit-card bill (I lived fairly frugally at the time.)
But the book to which I devoted my waking hours, and my sleeping hours, and many hours between, was called Before The Backbone: Views on the Origin of the Vertebrates. This was a scholarly tome that grew out of a course I had to supervise when a graduate student in Cambridge. I had to teach undergraduates in Part Ib Zoology about the origins of the vertebrates – then (as now) a difficult and fascinating topic. There was no handy textbook on the subject, and I had to pull together a lot of references, many of them very old and obscure. At the time, molecular biology was making inroads into the topic (Hox genes had just been invented). I wanted to write the book I wish I’d had as a teaching aid.
So, while still a graduate student I pestered a commissioning editor at a publishing house, who I knew, about my writing a book. Pester power worked, and indeed it cost him nothing – I got no advance – and in due course of time the book appeared. It was taken up in a couple of colleges in the U. S. and A. as a graduate-level seminar text. I got around £1200 when the book first came out from immediate sales, and it generates a modest royalty to this day (about £50 a year). At that point my accountant asked me a killer question – how much did I think the book had earned me per hour?
So much for unpopular science. It was then I made a bid to break into the trade market (that is, popular science), and then I had to answer a question that Mr B. C. of Swindon asked of his interlocutor – can you say why you, rather than anyone else, should be writing this book? That is, do you have a track record? Well, by that time I’d been at Your Favourite Etcetera for a few years, and had a couple of books under my belt, which helped. I acquired an agent. I worked, very, very hard for a year, evenings, weekends, on writing …. not a book, but the proposal for a book, something that my agent could pitch to prospective publishers.
The effort paid off. Pop-science in the late 1990s was sexy. Every publisher was starting a pop-science list and was throwing money at it. My proposal was the focus of a bidding war. I got offered eye-watering sums for the book – enough to allow Mrs Crox to take three years off to start work on producing Crox Minor. The book that emerged was Deep Time, and writing it was nearly as hard as writing the proposal. The follow up, a few years later, was Jacob’s Ladder. I think that’s a better book, but it earned a fraction of the advance – the pop-science craze was over and publishers were beginning to realize that they’d never see returns on the enormous advances they’d been paying out. Indeed, neither book has ever turned a penny in royalties.
Well, since then I have written a lot of other books of all sorts, with and without my agent, through publishers and on my own. Advances, if any, have been small, and royalties even smaller. And, thinking of my accountant’s question, I have to say I’d get a far better hourly rate stacking shelves at McTesco. Most writers, even quite successful ones, also have a day job, and writing occasionally earns a few pennies on the side. That’s certainly been the case with me. Even for hugely successful writers, like J. K. Rowling, you’ll find that it takes years and years of hard work to become an overnight sensation.
So, if you want to write popular science – or indeed anything at all – you won’t be doing it for the money.