Looking for advice on pitching a pop science book
April 30, 2011 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Advice on approaching publishers for a popular science book?

Hoping to stock up the to-be-read section of my bookshelf, I went looking for a book on a specific topic related to my field and discovered that no-one seems to have written it yet.

I enjoy writing about and giving talks on science for non-scientists in my spare time. Most of it is rather better structured and edited than my posting history on MeFi! I also have a sufficiently solid background in this subject that I have a good running start at doing the necessary research for a book of my own, so this niche seems like too good an opportunity to pass up. I'm not hoping to get rich from this; I think I'll have fun writing it, I have a bit of a passion for the subject and am just narcissistic enough that I'd love to seem my name on the shelf in a bookshop.

The trouble is that I have absolutely no idea how to go about approaching publishers, and all of the advice I can find for authors online is aimed at aspiring poets and novelists.

I assume that I'll need to string together a proposal of some sort. From some technical writing I've been involved in, I'd expect it to be something like:
- A short (750 words?) summary of what the book will cover and why it's unique (do I need to include an exhaustive search of the nearest competitors?)
- An overview of the book's structure, chapter by chapter (100 words each?)
- A sample chapter or two

Does this structure seem like it would work for this field of publishing?
Will publishers expect to have a proposal, whether in this format or one that you're about to suggest, attached to the first thing I send them, or should it be the result of a conversation that I have with them first?
What other advice can you offer on pitching a pop science book to a publisher?
posted by metaBugs to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm an academic writer, where the rules are different, but from talking to my colleagues and friends who publish general nonfiction, I think the most important rule is: find an agent.

Most publishers won't give much attention to an MS that arrives unsolicited. They may say that they accept unsolicited MSS but what that often means is that an intern will go through the slush pile from time to time. It's not unheard of to get published without an agent, but it's a lot harder. The job of an agent is to decide whether your book has a market, to help you identify the best publishers for it, and to help you craft a proposal that will succeed. Agents have contacts with publishers, which helps get you noticed, and if the publisher trusts the agent, the fact that the agent has agreed to take you on will be a big plus.

For more advice, the best place to start is Susan Rabiner's book Thinking Like Your Editor.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:08 AM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: Agreed on the agent part. Also, as an unpublished author, it would be a good idea to have written the book before you shop it. You can sell something on proposal when you're a known quantity, or maybe for a more utilitarian genre (for dummies, etc), but pop science books are often more about the quality of the writing than the topic coverage. Get at least 50% of the book written, then refine your proposal.
posted by libraryhead at 11:19 AM on April 30, 2011

I agree with both the first two answers. Finish the book first. I am in a similar situation, though with a Pop History project I have been working on since Grad School. (Nearly ten years). A few years back I sought similar advice from an editor friend of mine and she told me to finish the book first. Hire an agent second.
posted by holdkris99 at 12:10 PM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: Actually, with nonfiction, you almost never write the book first -- you write a proposal first, and a few chapters, and you have an outline ready to go, but you don't write the *entire* book before you sell it. (Here's a post by former agent Nathan Bransford explaining how to put together a book proposal.) In the "best of all possible worlds" scenario, it goes like this: Once you have your proposal together, then you get an agent (in your case, one who has sold other books in that pop-sci genre). Then your agent sends it to likely editors/publishers. And then you get a contract and write the book.
posted by mothershock at 12:24 PM on April 30, 2011

A more contemporary internet approach would be to start a serious focused blog and let that get noticed, be a marketing device and build up a body of work that may also be partially re-purposed as chapters.
posted by sammyo at 1:09 PM on April 30, 2011

Best answer: Speaking from experience, you absolutely do not need a full manuscript to get an agent or even a contract. But you do need an obviously original idea and a strong proposal.

Some questions to ask yourself:

- Why am I the best person to write this book?
- Why does this book need to be written now?

Your proposal should address both.

Pay extra attention to the marketing statement. Who's going to read your book? How will you reach those people? How are you specifically positioned to get the word out? Publishers will take a risk on a non-fiction book if they think it can sell. Show them it can.

Blogs, in my experience, are hit and miss. Upside: good marketing tool. Downside: not always representative of the writer's polished work. Your call.
posted by vecchio at 4:05 PM on April 30, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the sage advice. Approaching an agent simply hadn't occurred to me as a possibility, such is my inexperience in this field, so I will certainly read up on that process while I get a proposal together.
posted by metaBugs at 5:23 PM on May 8, 2011

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