Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Pivot #1: My popular science book idea may not get picked up by a literary agent

Posted 26 Oct 2015 / 0
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I am now about halfway through a one-semester sabbatical. As I have posted about before, the central project of my sabbatical is a popular science book with the working title Breeders, Propagators, & Creators. I have had this idea kicking around in my head for a long time, and being on sabbatical has afforded me the time and focus needed to see if I can actually take my career in a new direction as a popular science author.

After talking to some of my friends who have published and who know the publishing landscape pretty well, I decided that I wanted to see if I could get my book published by a commercial press. I perceived a few advantages associated with getting my book published by a commercial press:

  1. Distribution: I wanted my book to have maximum impact (by being read by as many people as possible), so the commercial distribution model was appealing. A concern that I had (and still have) about academic and independent publishers is that books end up getting mostly sold to academic libraries or to a very niche market. I wanted my book to have a better chance at distribution than that. I think there are subtleties to distribution that go beyond “commercial = big, non-commercial = small”, but at first pass I was interested in the potential for large distribution that a commercial press affords.
  2. Publicity: How well the existence of a new book is publicized is related to distribution, but it also relates to opportunities to get one’s ideas out there. Commercial presses line up author talks and appearances in order to increase book sales, but from my perspective the opportunity to talk about the ideas in my book is just another way to get my ideas out there. Whether people decide to buy my book or not, I see the chance to talk about it as a big opportunity.
  3. Income: I am so lucky not to have to rely solely on income from something like popular science writing (honestly, having seen what it takes to make it in this realm I am even more impressed by dedicated science writers –people like Mary Roach — whose career is just writing about science). But as academics we are on nine-month contracts and our income reflects that: to really have a decent income — especially trying to survive in New York City — it helps to find a source of income for those three unpaid months. Many scientists get paid for these “off months” with grant money; I was hoping to use book advances to increase my income.

Looking at this list now I can see that some of my motivations for trying to get a literary agent may not have fully reflected who I am, either personally or professionally. Some of the advantages that I perceived in commercial publishing may also not have been completely accurate. But this is how I was thinking when I decided to do what it takes to get on a commercial press: try to attract the representation of a literary agent.

I never cease to be surprised by how many bizarre little pockets of culture there are out there in the human-created universe, and the world of literary agents is certainly one of those pockets. Who knew that there were so many people trying to sell book ideas for others? Who knew that this world would be so chaotic (and yes, I do mean with a pattern but one that is difficult to discern!)?

The advice I got was to put together a book proposal and a query letter and start fishing. Initially I thought that I should just write the book and then shop it — something that would certainly take me longer than this four-month sabbatical — but it was explained to me that literary agents don’t like complete nonfiction manuscripts: they like a proposal that they can help shape and then sell to commercial presses. This is how things work in nonfiction, including popular science: publishers buy proposals and then give authors an advance with which to write the book over a fixed period of time.

In a way this was a relief to me. The proposal and query letter seemed like a good way of getting my ideas together without fully committing to all the research and writing required to actually produce the book. So off I went to find out what it takes to make a good proposal and query. And I dutifully produced both through a process that helped me to clarify exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the book. I had a roadmap of where the book would go rather than a jumble of ideas in my head, and this was an accomplishment in of itself.

Just figuring out where to send my queries was a daunting task. My friend Gregory Tague, who has published a lot of books, sent me a list of agents that he had approached in the past; this gave me a substantial leg up on the process. But I also searched high and wide through a great variety of resources, trying to figure out who would be the most appropriate agent to approach. There were a few clear choices, as I was able to figure out which agents represent some of my favorite popular science authors. But for the most part finding agent contacts is a scattershot process. Some agents make it clear that they don’t accept unsolicited queries. Others are actively looking to “build their list”, an invitation that makes one feel the same mix of excitement-and-horror that accompanies considering pledging a fraternity. For the most part, agents are vague. They might ready to “take on the right writer if she comes along”, or they are interested broadly in “narrative nonfiction”, or they are “looking for that special something”.

So faced with this chaos, what’s the logical thing to do? The answer is kind of similar to what we academics all do when faced with an impossible professorial job market: when in doubt, just fire away. I decided that since I had no clue who were the agents most likely to represent my idea, I might as well just query them all. Although they have varying requirements for their queries, most agents want the same basic things, so the labor involved in “customizing” my query for each of the thirty-four agents I contacted was pretty minimal. So off these queries went into what the agency industry calls the “slush pile”, the incredibly large number of queries that agents have to sift through in order to find those they wish to represent. I feel a bit bad about adding to this mess, but in such a chaotic environment I could not pick up any pattern that would have allowed me to refine my queries.

Here are the statistics for my queries as of today:

Type of response Number of responses Percentage of total
No response 20 58.8%
Turned down invitation to represent 7 20.6%
Turned down invitation to represent (with feedback) 2 5.9%
Requested proposal, no response since 1 2.9%
Requested proposal, turned down invitation to represent (with feedback) 4 11.8%

A fair number of my queries were made only a couple of week ago, so in fairness I may still receive more responses as time rolls along. But based on the feedback that I have received thus far, I am not particularly hopeful that any further response will lead to being picked up by a literary agent. In fact, based on the feedback that I have received thus far, I would not trust an agent who wanted to represent my book as proposed; my proposal needs work from me before it should be presented to any publisher. It is time to pivot on this project.

Let’s start with a positive take on these results: four agents actually were sufficiently interested in the book idea that I presented in my query to ask to see my full proposal. Given how scattershot my querying process was, this is not a bad result. And of the agents who were interested in seeing my proposal, three were people whose work with other authors I knew and respected. So perhaps in my scattershot I had captured some more viable prospects; looking back at it now it is clear to me that unless the agent explicitly expresses an interest in popular science, I am likely barking up the wrong tree (although I have to say that how little time it takes to query makes it tempting to keep querying anyone and everyone).

The agents who chose to gave me feedback impressed me. As you will see below, some of this feedback was kind and encouraging, and some of it was pretty harsh. But all of the feedback was a gift, because it gave me something to work with. And if you think about it, there is very little that an agent gets out of providing me with feedback. I have already wasted some of their time by adding to the pile of stuff they need to review, book ideas that they have no interest in representing, so any agent focused solely on their own interests shouldn’t bother responding at all; that appears to be what is going on with the vast majority of agents that I queried. Perhaps they should respond with a content-less decline because that will at least reduce the chances that I will keep pestering them; note that the majority of the responses I received fell into this category. But why would they respond with constructive criticism, which takes some time to write? Maybe they are keeping the door open in case I get my act as a popular science author together, in which case I would definitely first approach the agents who gave me meaningful feedback. So perhaps there is some self-interest involved, but it mostly seems to me that these agents actually cared about their industry enough to provide meaningful feedback to a not-yet-viable author. Sometimes to grow a garden you need to tend to plants that have not yet borne fruit.

So what kind of feedback did I get?

I was encouraged that none of the agents criticized my actual writing, and a few of them praised how I write. Although I think that I am far from being a polished writer, my current writing acumen does not seem to be a major barrier to my entry into the world of popular science writing.

A couple of agents suggested to me that this book would not be likely to be picked up by a commercial publisher. One suggested that my idea felt more suitable for a magazine article or series of articles. Another suggested that it would be more suitable for an academic press.

In my eyes the most valuable feedback that I got was that which was most harsh. One agent told me that he could not figure out what I was trying to accomplish with my book: in his words, my proposal was too “abstruse” (which sent me to Google to search on “define: abstruse“). Another agent suggested that my proposal was “filled with empty hot air” because I failed to present interesting and novel factual content. Receiving this sort of feedback is tough on one’s ego, but I am far more concerned with becoming better at writing a proposal than I am feeling good about my current accomplishments as a writer (such as they are).

The criticism that I received is helping to guide my pivot on this project. It’s clear that I need to write a more compelling proposal. Part of this may have to do with making what I want to accomplish with my book a lot more clear, but the greatest need is to actually accomplish my book’s objectives. Looking at my proposal with new eyes, it is clearly about what I plan to deliver rather than what I will deliver. And why my proposal has this deficiency is pretty obvious to me: I have not done all the research that this book will require. Unfortunately having a book idea — even in the nonfiction world where a completed manuscript is not what is sold to publishers — is not enough. Basically you have to have the full content of the book ready, even if you have not “written it” yet. I was a little bit too out in front of my own process trying to float a proposal at this stage of my research and writing.

So my plan is to focus my work on a presentation version of the book, which will require me to get a lot deeper into the research that has to be completed in order to write a more convincing proposal. While the presentation can’t possibly encompass the content of the entire book, it will have to capture the major ideas, and therefore ought to be a perfect prelude to a new and improved book proposal. I am excited that I have a deadline for getting this proposal into shape, as I am scheduled to talk about the ideas underlying my book at St. Francis College on December 11th, 2015.

Once I have enough research done and I have a better sense of what the book can actually accomplish, I will be back to writing a new book proposal. But I think that I will take the advice of at least one agent who seemed to think that my work was better suited for an academic press. A lot of academic presses are publishing more accessible work — some even explicitly called popular science — so with a slight re-tool I think my idea can float for the right academic press. What is nice about academic presses is that they generally don’t deal with agents. I can send my proposals directly to these presses and if they want to give me a contract based on the merit of my proposal they will. Of course that’s also a bit scary, because it means that there won’t be anyone to help me make sure the Book Proposal V.2 doesn’t suffer from as many fatal flaws as Book Proposal V.1. I also need to temper expectations on what the book will produce for me: you don’t make money publishing on academic presses. Again, as a tenured full-time faculty member I am thankful that income can be a secondary concern when it comes to publishing books.

Although it has not been easy coming to grips with just how far away I still am from having a competitive book proposal, it has been so important for me to take a first errant swing at getting an agent. When I started reading about how to attract an agent and eventually a publisher, what scared me most was my lack of an “author platform”. A lot of successful popular science writers are either former journalists (whose platform is their well-known past writing) or accomplished scientists (whose platform is their place in the scientific community). Clearly I have neither of these platforms, which worried me. The delusional part of my brain feared that I might produce something genius that simply wouldn’t get picked up by an agent because I am not well-known as a scientist. But all evidence points to the contrary: these agents do not seem as concerned about my platform for writing this book as they are about the viability of my idea as a book. In a weird way that’s good news, because it will be a lot easier for me to get my book ideas into better shape than to build a substantial author platform.

And I am heartened by the feedback I have received on my writing. I know that I can work out the ideas that will make my book idea viable, so it is good to know that I don’t also need to massively re-tune my writing skills.


A Major Post, Breeders, Propagators, & Creators, Public Outreach, Publication, Science as a career

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