Laelaps

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I can’t help it – every time I pass a bookstore, I wonder whether they are going to carry my book when it comes out this autumn. November is still a long way away – summer does not even officially begin until next week – but I can’t help but wonder where my book will pop up and how it will be received. It is both exciting and anxiety-inducing.

I try not to speculate too much about what will happen when Written in Stone comes out. It is not even entirely finished yet. Right now the original text and scribbled margin notes from the last copyedited version are being transformed into page proofs for their final check. Once everything is in shape the galley copies will be made – this is the version which will be sent out to reviewers, prospective interviewers, and others.

There is not very much for me to do with Written in Stone at this stage. I worked on the manuscript almost every day between September and March, but now I am in a hurry-up-and-wait cycle of combing over the manuscript and sending it back out again for finishing touches. That doesn’t mean that I can relax. If Written in Stone is going to do well I am going to have to promote it, and doing so involves different challenges.

Over the past year I have been working to get some freelance writing gigs, both to promote my book and to break into science writing on a more professional level. There has been a steep learning curve. My early attempts to pitch articles were not very good – or at least not very well-suited to the kinds of stories which regularly appear in newspapers and magazines – but thanks to some kind editors and fellow freelancers I have begun to meet with a little more success. Among the most difficult aspects of the process involved determining which story should be pitched to which periodical and how it should be presented. In one case I explained my general idea to an editor and they let me run with it, but in other cases I spent hours fine-tuning detailed proposals only to hear that the story didn’t fit, the magazine covered something similar a year or so ago, or that the chief editor did not particularly like stories about creepy crawlies such as bone-boring snotworms. There is no exact formula or method for success. The editorial staff at a given publication is often like a “black box” to me – I never know what kind of story they prefer until I try to submit something.

A major challenge is finding good stories to pitch. As far as I can tell, new fossil discoveries are often covered by staff writers who receive embargoed papers ahead of time. By the time I find out about something new, it is too late. Instead, I spend a lot of time digging into the literature for more obscure – but still interesting – subjects, particularly ongoing debates that require pulling different studies or papers together. The trouble is that the fields which most interest me are paleontology, natural history, and the history of science; subjects which can be hard to sell unless there is something new and exciting going on. (When I pitched a story to SEED about the changing image of dinosaurs in pop culture, for example, I was turned down because the editor said the magazine just didn’t do paleontology unless there was some kind of exceptional, breaking news associated with it.) Perhaps I would have more options if I were better versed in tech, genetics, psychology, or neuroanatomy – the kind of stuff which regularly gets top billing these days – but I have to follow my passions. More often than not, what most excites me are new insights into things which are really old.

It has been difficult to find a balance between all these writing activities. I have two blogs to feed (in addition to this blog, I’ll be writing at Dinosaur Tracking for at least another year), one book to finish, another book (tentatively called Wild New World) just starting up, academic papers to complete, and plenty of articles to write, all of which have to be squeezed in during nights and weekends. I would not be doing all this if I did not love it, but at the same time I sometimes feel overwhelmed as prospective projects continue to pile up. There is never enough time. I am hoping that I will gain enough momentum within the next year or so to start writing full time, but with the high cost of living in New Jersey and a significant amount of student loans in repayment, leaving my day job to become a science writer is not a viable option just yet.

So far, though, this has been a pretty good year. I have already published one story with Smithsonian, will soon have another coming out in the Times science magazine Eureka, will see the publication of my first two academic papers later this year, and have my first book debut in November. That is certainly more than I did last year, but I am not satisfied with what I have done just yet. At the moment I have a few pitches sitting on my hard drive – articles on a variety of topics from the debate over sauropod posture to the social intelligence of hyenas to the evolution of “whalefall” communities – so I guess I should get back to pitching!

Comments

  1. #1 GaryU
    June 18, 2010

    Bah! I hate it when people say summer hasn’t officially begun. There is no official date in the States. That said… anxiously awaiting the book.

  2. #2 Glendon Mellow
    June 18, 2010

    Timely update, Brian! I was just thinking about your book when I started reading one by Jack Horner. Can’t wait!

  3. #3 HP
    June 18, 2010

    As a longtime lurker and infrequent commenter, I have to say that watching your transformation from struggling science student to working science writer has been the most satisfying story arc to come out of real-life soap opera that is ScienceBlogs. I went through a lot of similar transitions when I was in my twenties, and even under the best of circumstances, these things are always painful and wrenching. (One of those transitions? The realization that I would never write for Smithsonian, my favorite magazine growing up. You are my hero.)

    I feel for everything you’ve been through, and I admire the skill and grace you’ve exhibited as your goals have metamorphosed over the last several years. I am a big fan, and look forward to seeing your byline for many years to come.

  4. #4 Michael
    June 19, 2010

    Re the bookstores: yup, you have a sort of vision of your book prominently in the front window, signs announcing that the author book-signing event requires police crowd-control…

    And then you find it’s not even on the shelves. If it is, you take a couple of photos and discretely re-arrange the display, drop a copy on the “staff choices” table. Sad, isn’t it?!

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    June 19, 2010

    or that the chief editor did not particularly like stories about creepy crawlies such as bone-boring snotworms.

    Hmph. Their loss.

  6. #6 Brian Switek
    June 19, 2010

    Gary – Sorry. I probably would not have made that comment had I not had a calendar right in front of me at the time.

    Glendon – Glad to hear that you’re looking forward to it! Are you reading Horner’s new book? What do you think of it?

    HP – Thank you very much! It is always gratifying to hear that someone enjoys what I write. Most of the time I have no idea how my work is being received – I just write because I love it. There are so many things I want to write, and, with any luck, I’ll have more chances to turn some of my ideas into real articles in the near future.

    Michael – I have no idea what to expect in terms of distribution. The first run is going to be about 5,000 copies, and since Bellevue is a small independent publisher I know it might be a struggle to get the book the attention I think it deserves. (It will be released in Japan, as well, though I don’t know the details of the translated edition.) I would actually be fairly pleased as long as it showed up in the local Barnes & Noble. Maybe I’ll get lucky with some interviews (during the Q&A before a taping of The Daily Show I saw last week I almost wanted to ask Jon Stewart “Can I come on your show when my book comes out?”) and other promotional things, but who knows? This is all new to me.

    Blake – Agreed, though I wish I had the chance to write that piece! Pitching to editors is always tricky. You can come up with a great idea for a story, but the publishing philosophy of editors and their predilections about what is interesting can be formidable obstacles. Some magazines do not want to publish stories about debates and controversies – they only want settled science – while others won’t accept anything but “big-picture” pieces written by top-class writers. The fact that “breaking news” type stories are often handled by in-house staff writers further limits the available topics, and honestly some days I am at a loss for what I might be able to sell to a magazine. It is often aggravating, frustrating work, but over time I have started to learn what different magazines expect. And I don’t want to be too down on science mag editors as a whole. The staff at the time Times of London, in particular, have been wonderful to work for. Not only did they initially approach me about writing an op-ed during last year’s Ida kerfuffle, but when I pitched some stories to them they gave me the freedom to write the story I really wanted to tell. I was floored by how enthusiastic and accepting they were, and I hope the piece (which is due out soon) will be well-received. I know writing for a diversity of publications is a desirable thing, but I hope I will have the opportunity to work with them again in the future.

  7. #7 Noah
    June 19, 2010

    Your book looks interesting, and I hope I can grab a copy (I’m in B.C.)

  8. #8 Brian Switek
    June 20, 2010

    Noah – Thanks! The book should be available in Canada at the same time it debuts in the US. As far as I am aware, it will be available in the US, Canada, and in Japan (in a translated edition). I am hoping that, once it is finished, more distribution deals will be secured, and though nothing official has been nailed down for the UK I have seen the book listed on amazon.co.uk.

  9. #9 John Pieret
    June 22, 2010

    When the book comes out I want to get the author to sign it. After all, if I can get the Australian philosopher to sign his, surely I can get the Jersey boy. ;-)

  10. #10 Stevo Darkly
    June 22, 2010

    I’ve said this before, but your book is definitely on my “buy” list.

    Your next one is too!