“I never thought that I would be in competition with Bill Clinton,” said Mark Wolverton, a current Knight Science Journalism Fellow. He was referring to how his second book, The Depths of Space: The Pioneer Planetary Probes, was published in the same month as the former president’s autobiography, My Life, in 2004. It was one of the many unexpected challenges confronted by the book authors in this year’s class.
The three authors — Wolverton, Meera Subramanian, and Maura O’Connor — shared their experiences of writing and selling their books with the rest of the fellows in the comfort of the conference room on the dark, rainy afternoon of November 15.
The authors gave practical advice about writing a book proposal, finding the right agent, and paying for travel and research, among other topics. Subramanian showed a step-by-step slide presentation called “Anatomy of a first book deal (and how to survive while actually writing the book).”
But along with giving specific tips, such as looking at the acknowledgments pages of books you admire to find agents and editors who might be a good fit, the authors tackled the issue of — as Wolverton put it, adding a choice expletive — “Why do you write a book in the first place?”
All three KSJ authors emphasized that writing a book could be a painful process — as could trying to sell it — and that there were no guarantees of fame and fortune. Most authors will never earn out their advances, let alone get large royalty checks or hit the top of the best-sellers list.
So why bother?
Subramanian knew she was ready to write a book when, after struggling for years with a difficult book proposal that she could not quite make work, she was inspired by a new idea and came up with a complete proposal in three weeks. She said the idea that became a published book felt different. The narrative arc came easily and the idea was something that wouldn’t let go of her. To get through the slog of finishing a book, the writer needed to be captivated by the topic, to feel “even straight-up obsession,” she said. The result was A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, From the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (2015), which features five stories of sustainability efforts in India.
As a career journalist, O’Connor knew that not every assignment she got was going to excite her. “The best reason to write a book is that it is intellectually satisfying,” she said, adding that the size of the advance and the size of the audience aren’t important. “Does this make me happy?” she asked. “If yes, do it.” O’Connor’s first book, Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-extinction, and the Precarious Future of Wild Things (2015), discusses the complexities and contradictions of wildlife conservation, as well as the possibility of reviving extinct species.
Wolverton described a different type of satisfaction. “I’m sure all of us remember the first time we published something, but that’s not the same as having something you can hold,” he said. A book felt more permanent than an article, more lasting. “There will be times when you hate the stupid thing,” he said, but “after all the agony, you get to walk into a bookstore and see this.” And he showed a picture of a tall stack of copies of his third book, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer, in a bookstore, waiting to be sold. His expression as he looked at the photo was clear: All of the bad writing days, the arduous negotiations, and the unexpected challenges had been worth the joy of picking up his work from a bookstore table and holding it in his hand.