Tracts of my tears or writing tips for the unwary

May 7, 2004

Aspiring authors are like lambs to the slaughter, so make sure the wool isn't pulled over your eyes, says Tim Birkhead.

So, you want to write a book? Unless this is your only means of academic recognition, ask yourself whether a book is a good idea. Outside the humanities, the research assessment exercise doesn't rate books, so you'll need a good reason for "wasting" your efforts on one when you could be writing another grant application or preparing a paper for Nature to reject.

There are other disadvantages. Academic books rarely make much money and writing them can take a long time - at a minimum, twice as long as you first anticipate. A quick option might seem the edited book - simply get a bunch of your mates to write a chapter each and you, "the editor", can rattle off an all-embracing introduction and a wrap-up chapter. What could be easier?

Well, almost anything else, actually. Edited books tend to be done by only the naive or the sadomasochistic. With few exceptions, most are seriously bad. They are bad to read, badly publicised and badly cited. I can hear you protest: "But that won't apply to my edited book." Yes, it will. However carefully you plan, something will go wrong.

OK then, how about writing one from start to finish, either alone or with a good colleague? This is a better idea and, despite the disadvantages, there are several good reasons for doing so. If you have something worth saying and if the state of your area of research is ready for a book, then summarising the field can be wonderfully exciting. It can help you put your own ideas into perspective, identify new lines of inquiry and stimulate the field. A book well done can also transform you from a nobody to a slightly better known nobody.

There are several rules the budding young scientific author needs to be aware of. The first is that publishers are often desperate to sign up new titles and will try to flatter you into accepting their offer. Be strong.

Don't succumb to the first publisher that enthuses about your proposal; shop around until you get the best deal. But don't be under any illusions.

There is no "'advance" and rarely much of a payoff at the end, either.

Two things are important, however: your editor and the contract. Ask around and make sure your editor is great to work with. I have been fortunate over the years, but early in my career I made the mistake of signing a book contract without fully understanding the publisher's gobbledegook. The book was a modest success and I later got a much more attractive offer to write a larger book on the same topic. Remembering the befuddling phraseology of the original contract, I showed it to my new publisher. He told me I had unwittingly signed away the right to write anything similar for any other publisher. The project had to be dropped.

A few years later I had to renegotiate the contract for a learned society's journal. Feeling that there was more than my own neck at stake, I sought professional advice. The agent I employed took one look at the original contract and laughed out loud - lambs to the sausage machine, she said - a complete rip-off.

Academic authors rarely have agents to look after their interests in the same way as other writers, so what can you do? The best advice is to join the Society of Authors ( ). It costs about £70 a year, but once you are signed up they'll read your contract and tell you what's good about it and what's not, and try to make sure you get a fairer deal.

A recent article in the society's magazine, The Author , had this to say:

"Academic publishing has always been a bit of a confidence trick on the academic community. Researchers write books to get ahead in their careers, and academic publishers recycle this ambition as a way of buying content very cheaply and selling it very expensively." True, so true.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Sheffield. He has written seven books and edited three. His most recent book, The Red Canary , is published this week in paperback by Phoenix.

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