A few Science 2.0 readers may recall that I tried out some ideas for a book here in 2009, and the immediate feedback was encouraging and helpful. The book is called First Life and is about to be published by UCPress. (One of my colleagues mentioned that advance copies are already available from Amazon.com.) I thought it might be interesting to say a bit more about how a book can emerge from the chaos of daily life, and how the effort has affected what I am doing now.

Why does a working scientist decide to write a book, anyway? There is no easy answer. The fact is that the ideas I described in First Life developed over a period of many years, beginning with a paper published in Nature in 1977. When someone works that long on a subject as intractable as the origin of life, the ideas keep piling up. They begin to fit into a pattern, and at some point you feel like sharing them with anyone who might be interested, mostly people like the readers of Science 2.0 who are not necessarily working scientists but are curious and enjoy thinking.

    So again, why write a book? The fact is that scientists at universities write a lot, maybe 3 - 4 papers per year on average. Their papers get published in thousands of journals and more recently in online journals such as PLoS (Public Library of Science). Some scientists get into book publishing, mostly as editors, which is an easy way to have your name associated with the title of a book. I have edited half a dozen books, including Origins of Life that was published last year by Cold Spring Harbor Press. Editing a book is a labor of love. Academic publishers in the sciences make a living by selling their books to libraries all over the world, so they only print a thousand or so copies. What the editor gets as a reward is an additional item to add to their curriculum vitae, the academic version of a resume.

    A few scientists decide to write text books This is much harder work, but can also be very lucrative. Text books are marketed to captive audiences of college students, so a good chemistry or biology textbook can sell 100,000 or more copies at $100 each. If you do the arithmetic, you will see that a few authors of text books have paid off their mortgages with the royalties and had a little left over for a nice BMW.

    The next thing I will say is just a guess, so take it for what it's worth: only 1 in 1000 scientists writes what is called a trade book that is meant to be sold in book stores. Some well-known examples include Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Jared Diamond, Steven Jay Gould and Steven Weinberg. What's the first thing to do when you decide to compete for readers in this elite company? It's very different from textbooks, where publishers send acquisition editors who almost beg you to write a book for them. Getting an editor to go with your trade book idea is more difficult, so you pay someone to do the legwork for you. In other words, you get an agent.

Dave Deamer First Life

    The first job of an agent is to help you get your book proposal into shape, and then shop it around to publishers who might be interested. My agent tried half a dozen publishers before getting an expression of interest from the University of California Press. I have been a UC faculty member since 1967, and UC Press is a premier university publishing house. In fact, most major universities sponsor publishing houses, and scientists who decide to write books compete to be published by the university presses of Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford.

    The other job of an agent is to represent an author in negotiating royalties and an advance against royalties. Publishing a book by a scientist is essentially a kind of gamble for a university press. They take an educated guess at how many copies might be sold, calculate their costs and profits, and then sign a contract with the author that includes a partial payment, or advance, for royalties expected to be earned from sales of the book. The usual arrangement is that the prospective author gets only half of the advance, with a promise of the other half when the manuscript is completed and accepted for publication. Furthermore, the fine print says that if the book is not completed or unacceptable, you gotta give the money back. This is a substantial psychological spur to getting the job done.

    Then the actual task of writing begins. For me, this meant getting up while it was still dark, brewing a pot of coffee in the study I share with my wife, and letting the words flow between me and our computer from 5 to 7 in the morning. Eventually, two years later, something resembling a book manuscript emerged, but I was not done yet. The publishers don't really know whether a science book is any good, so they send the manuscript to a couple of your fellow scientists who are asked to review it. Reviewing a book manuscript is not quite a thankless task -- you might get a hundred bucks or a free book for your effort as a reviewer.

    Anyway, the reviews were favorable and UC Press decided to go ahead with publication. But I was not done yet. My magnificent prose went off to a merciless copy editor, who dug down to find all the typos, spelling errors, cryptic wording, hanging participial phrases and so on that crept in as I wrote between 5 and 7 in the morning. And my beautiful photos and illustrations go to the art editor, who complains about pixilation, dpi, contrast and so on that now needs fixing before the book can go to press. Then there are permissions. You might have borrowed a few illustrations from the internet, or perhaps been given a micrograph by a colleague. You need something in writing saying that it is OK to use them as figures in your book. Getting permissions is such as onerous task that it is easiest to simply pay someone to do it for you, typically at a cost of $100 per figure.

    So, what does an author get out of all this work? The fact is that writing a science book for the trade market is very much like writing a glorified blog. In other words, there is a certain intrinsic pleasure of letting the ideas flow and sharing them with readers who might be interested in what you have to say. The other thing I noticed is that the writing task forced my brain to discover new ways to think about years of research on the origin of life, and to assemble the ideas into a logical framework. The flow of ideas also tends to produce an unexpected avalanche of energy that leads to other projects. For instance, working with a colleague at NASA Ames Research Center, we recently submitted a grant proposal to test one of the main ideas in the book which I wrote about in Chapter 14.

    Now that everything is done, a certain degree of suspense maintains my interest in the fate of the book. Will it get a favorable review anywhere? Will it be panned by a critic? Will it be attacked by creationists and intelligent design proponents? (Almost certainly it will be.) Or, worst of all, will it simply sink into a swamp of indifference? This is what happens to most trade books in the sciences, because there are thousands available and only a limited number of interested readers. A year from now, I will have answers to these questions and will report again in Science 2.0.