Comment »Posted on Thursday 2 July 2009 at 1:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Another action-packed day at the WCSJ! I began this morning on the registration desks, welcoming delegates who had not yet registered and directing various lost looking people to where they needed to go. This was followed by another few hours roaring trade on the ABSW book stand, where various science books were now being sold for the low, low price of three quid.

After a brief – and I mean literally five minute – lunch, I went along to the ABSW’s session on how to publish a popular science book. Chaired by Sara Abdulla, Chief Commissioning Editor at Nature, and featuring the author John Gribbin, agent Peter Tallack and Penguin editor Will Goodlad, the session focussed on moving from an idea in your head to a published book, and all the steps in between.

All the panellists stressed the importance of writing a detailed outline that you can peddle to agents and publishing companies. This allows you to present your ideas in full without having to write the entire manuscript first! Anything that helps you stand out from the crowd is an advantage, especially in a world where, according to Abdulla, up to one million books are looking for an agent at any one time.

Part of the discussion revolved around books written by scientists versus those written by science journalists. Publishing companies like to have a “name” behind the book to increase marketability, and the book buying public supposedly like to hear about research directly from the scientists doing it. Having said that, there is still a place for journo’s who want write something more substitutional than a feature piece.

If they can’t find a publisher though, they could always do it themselves. On the topic of self-publishing, the panel were mixed. Goodlad thought it was a good idea – despite the questioner asking if it made him worry for his job – simply because there are so many books out there, and traditional publishers can’t put them all out. Gribbin meanwhile said he was “too lazy” to self-publish, and the general consensus was self-published books can’t achieve real commercial success.

Immediately following this session was another that asked “Is the growing influence of PR on science journalism in the public interest?” Ben Goldacre was there, along with Simon Denegri, Chief Executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, Andrew Jack of The Financial Times, and John Clare, Managing Director of Lions Den Communications. It was chaired by Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust.

I was actually working on this session as a steward thus I wasn’t able to make notes, so please forgive my lack of details. Goldacre gave his usual entertaining spiel, pointing out stories masquerading as science that had been manufactured by PR agencies, whilst Denegri and Jack were made slightly less inflammatory comments. Clare had a decent go at defending the PR industry, despite technical difficulties that left him without his Powerpoint presentation for a while, and me running about in search of a technician. I’m not sure how much of it I bought though.

The audience responses were interesting. The journalists complained that PR often won’t let them speak to the scientists they want to, especially if the story is bad news, and that their editors force them to write up the PR-produced stories as news, else it will be passed to a non-specialist and end up even worse! Also present were various press officers, who complained that they don’t like being tarred with the same brush as PR, and that “P” is badly defined anyway. It made for an interesting and heated session – not just because the room was sweltering!

After some more book selling and some general milling about I head off, along with everyone else, to the Gala Reception at the Natural History Museum. Whilst a very impressive location, the acoustics weren’t quite suited to the various speeches given, and it was hard to hear what was being said. The food however was excellent, including a mini fish and chip canapĂ©!

Another enjoyable if lengthy day then. Tomorrow is the last proper day of the conference, and I’ll try to blog as much as I can. See you then!


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