Meet a researcher – Dean Burnett

I’m guessing many of you will know Dean Burnett – he’s a science writer, comedian, neuroscientist and the author of several bestselling science books including The Happy Brain and The Idiot Brain.  Recently over in the Research Companion Facebook Group we were talking about how to get a book published. Dean obviously has a great amount of experience to share and he very kindly wrote this post for us to explain more.

Over to you Dean….

Dean Burnett

As someone who’s made a decent fist of it when it comes to publishing from an academic background, albeit in a very weird and baffling way, here are some handy points I often share based on my own experiences. They may vary from those of others, so please don’t take them as absolutes.

First point for those who want to write a book; get an agent if you can. I’ve got one, and he’s been a Godsend. I’m afraid I can’t give much in the way of advice about how you get an agent, as he came to me. Approached me out of the blue after reading my blog, said he really liked my work and had I considered writing a book? I’ve sent a few friends and colleagues his way though and he’s now their agent too. I believe getting an agent is a fairly familiar process; seek out one who seems right (i.e. they represent people who do what you want to do or occupy similar spaces) and make contact. Tell them who you are, what you do, what you’ve got in mind, etc. If they think you’re a good prospect, they should open up a dialogue. Not every agent is decent of course, and some are nice but ineffectual, so you should only agree to work with someone who feels right, who you think would represent you fairly and effectively.

It may seem a bit of an extra, possibly-unnecessary step, but I really do advise getting an agent if possible, rather than dealing with publishers directly. An agent knows how it all works, knows the terms and structures, and knows when to push and when to back off (at least, they do in theory). Publishing seems to be quite an insular, chummy business in the UK, and every agent and editor I’ve met seems to know most if not all of the others in the industry, so getting someone on the ‘inside’ to represent you cuts through a lot of obstacles.

Yes, they take a cut, but they usually earn it and then some. My agent takes 12-15% (depending on what the deal is), but I’d have precisely 100% of zero without him. I’m not stupid or anything, but I still haven’t figured out how publishing all works yet, and I’m two books in now.

Second point; whether your approaching agents or publishers, it’s a really good idea to get your writing ‘out there’ in some capacity, off your own back. Start a blog, contribute to publications, even do a podcast or some sort of live thing. Bottom line, it’s endlessly helpful to meet with publishers and be able to point at something and say ‘That’s what I do’. Just something they can look up is useful, so they can see if you’d be a good fit or have potential, but if you’re lucky you’ll be able to build up your own audience, however small, and be able to conclusively prove that there are people who will like what you do.

It also helps to have a ‘profile’, however small. Very few publishers will agree to sign up someone who’s essentially an unknown. In truth, the academic qualification will sometimes be enough. ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ on a book jacket seems to be sufficient for some non-fiction publishers, depending on context. But the more known you are, the greater your profile or reputation, the greater your odds of getting traction with publishers.

Third point; sadly, it’s rarely the case that the best publishers will seek you out first. You have to go to them. They get bombarded by pitches all day every day, so seldom have to expend any effort on looking for them. This isn’t to say that it never happens; if you manage to achieve success or notoriety of your own (like I did) then yes, they may come to you first, but you’d need to be a pretty big hitter to get the upper echelons to come to you, your Random House and Penguin etc. I ended up with Faber and Faber (and from my own experiences, can’t praise them enough) but only after my agent approached them with my pitch.

Yes, you may get approached by a smaller or newer publisher, I got a couple myself, but had already agreed to work with Chris (my agent). If this happens, it’s essentially your call. They may be publishers who are newer or keener to make their mark, so possibly could fight your corner more effectively than a bigger company with many clients where you could get overlooked. But just as often they’re a bit more ‘exploitative’, like a more long-winded version of those emails you get from journals with impressive titles but no standing asking you for submissions. More on this later.

Fourth point, and it’s just a technical one. It seems the norm that pitches for fiction include the full manuscript. “Here’s the book I’ve written, will you publish it?” is essentially the approach there, from what I’m told. Non-fiction (especially science) is different, it’s usually a more flexible set-up. They know you’ll likely be researching developments as you go along so they don’t expect a full completed book. A premise, an outline, a rundown of the chapters and a sample chapter, that’s usually enough. Obviously the more you can show them the better.

Also, the bigger your profile or previous successes, the less they’ll insist upon when pitching new books. I’m not saying the pitch for my latest book was scrawled on the back of a napkin on the way to the meeting. I’m also not not saying that.

Fifth point. You need to be honest with yourself; how badly do you want to publish your book? Because publishing isn’t all friendly and jovial, it’s a business like any other. And it can get pretty dirty/cynical. A certain publisher is known for pursuing dodgy tactics when it comes to academics (not going to name them here for legal reason, but do message me if you want to know who it is, let’s just say they’re big enough to definitely know better). What they do is approach academics and offer to publish their book(s), they can often be very enthusiastic and encouraging. But they offer no advance and minimal (if any) royalties, because the prestige of having a book published is enough for some. The academic will write the book in their own time, maybe taking a sabbatical, and hand it in. They will publish it, but make barely any effort at marketing it, and it’ll soon be forgotten.

Why would they do this? Because academic books are reliably classed as reference books, so libraries and universities and the like order copies by default. Say if half the unis and libraries in the UK alone order one copy apiece, that’s several thousand copies sold. Remember, they’ve not paid the author anything to write it, and only need to pay minimal royalties, if any. There’s the production costs, but that’s minimal, so it’s a book they’ve got for free and paid zero to publicise, and they’ve earned upwards of £10,000 on it already. Might not sound like much, but do that with 10 academics a year, that’s a six figure profit for barely any investment right there. The fact that it’s your passion project that you’ve slaved over is irrelevant, and will be treated as such.

Basically, if a publisher approaches you with promises and commitments that seem too good to be true, that may well be because that’s exactly what they are.

Not all publishers are like this, but still be vigilant if you meet with anyone in an unofficial capacity. If ideas are raised in a meeting with editors, they could feasibly end up claiming it’s their idea, and insist on being involved with it regardless of your preferences. And they may have a point, at the end of the day. Basically, don’t give anything away that you don’t need to.

There’s probably more, but this post is already overly long.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Dean – if you’ve got questions about books, publishing etc then ask in the comments!

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