Writing science for muggles

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Writing science for muggles

Postby Jordan on October 18th, 2012, 6:12 am 

Continuation of the thread November 2012 Scientific American.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 19th, 2012, 7:42 am 

Lincoln wrote:Writing for SciAm is a bit of a pain...or at least a more complex process than many other periodicals. (If any SciAm editors read this, I love you all!!!) I think it's because most of their authors are academics with minimal experience in popularizations and they are used to doing major rewrites of what they receive. I have written many similar articles, but for SciAm I had to write four distinct intros before they found one they liked. Then there was impact by one editor who left SciAm just as the edits were complete and another editor appeared who wanted things reworked in different directions. Then the senior editors and copy editors added their two cents.

I would estimate that the published article is about 60-80% mine, with "alien DNA" interspersed throughout. They preserved enough of my voice that I hear it, but they homogenized it enough that I can hear the other voices.

In contrast, other magazines do it differently. One editor was absolutely brilliant. They tweaked my text a tiny amount, preserving my voice strongly, but turning the resultant text into something good enough to be in The New Yorker. In contrast, a different publication turned my article into something suitable for those readers who have difficulty with Dick and Jane. Yet another publication published my text nearly-verbatim.

But it is what it is...editors will do what they will do. They have a better understanding of their readership than the author does. Plus the editors and authors have common goals. It's been years since I had much discomfort with the editorial process. Well over a quarter million words popularizing science will do that to you.

In summary, I'd have to do a comparison to my sumbitted version 4.0 to the text to see who did what where.


I'll take that as "not intentional" on your part. Not worth your checking on by actually looking, just curious. I'm always interested in how people translate their work for non-specialist audiences, and why they make the choices they make.

I would say the SA editors did a very good job. They clearly know their audience and authors well. The hard work from them, and from you, shows. It's nicely polished and shiny. Send them a thank you note would be my advice. It costs nothing and everyone benefits from happy editors.

Advice for the grad students/new folk out there. If an editor wants you to make a change, and it does not alter your meaning, do it. And thank them for the good advice. Don't get wedded to your words, because no matter how much you like them, if they are not published they don't do much good. And for goodness sake don't fiddle with the bits the editor likes!

Heinlein said it well:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

So easy to say, so hard for many to do.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Lincoln on October 19th, 2012, 9:06 am 

Advice for the grad students/new folk out there. If an editor wants you to make a change, and it does not alter your meaning, do it. And thank them for the good advice. Don't get wedded to your words, because no matter how much you like them, if they are not published they don't do much good. And for goodness sake don't fiddle with the bits the editor likes!


Yep.

My advice is similar, although it differs somewhat. If the changed words makes it better or is neutral, just do it. This is especially true if the editor is paying you and if you want more work. It is OK to push back sometimes, especially if they radically change your voice or alter the meaning. Sometimes they'll put in words and phrases that don't sound like you and you're not comfortable saying. Then push back, but realize the editor decides what gets published or not.

When doing science popularization...especially for magazines, there is yet another bit of advice, which is exceedingly hard for many scientists to follow and that is that it's even OK for the editors to change the meaning, as long as the change isn't wrong. Scientists...good ones anyway....obsess over details. This principle or equation works in this instance, but fails in that one, etc. That level of nuance is more than most audiences can absorb (or want to absorb at the very least). If you make a scientific statement and add on all the clauses and phrases that make it strictly and scientifically-defensably true, you'll lose the audience. So it's important to recall that getting 90-95% of an idea across, which is mostly true, into the minds of 100% of the audience is better than getting something that is 100% true into the minds of 1% of the audience. In short, make compromises, tell truths that are mostly right and convey big ideas. It's OK to say that there is more to it and then not give all the extra details. And this is something editors often do, especially for new writers. Once you've done it for 5-10 years, you'll do it yourself.

I actually don't take all of Heinlein's advice. I never write anything until I've sold it first. It's one of the benefits of writing nonfiction.

Ursa....

If you were interested in a less-edited version of how I personally write for the public, you'd have to look at the books. The first had no editing at all in either the original or the revised edition some 8 years later, while the second only had copy editing to fix up non-traditional English. The one that the publisher is currently producing will also have copy editing only. Another very-lightly-edited piece is the recent cover story in the September 2012 The Physics Teacher. For these things, I can identify the cause for my choices.

But, in general, the periodicals can get extensive editorial involvement, with the SciAm being maybe the most reworked. For my taste, the original was better (and ever-so-slightly higher level), but the editor is top dog and there you have it.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 24th, 2012, 9:53 am 

Lincoln wrote:
I actually don't take all of Heinlein's advice. I never write anything until I've sold it first. It's one of the benefits of writing nonfiction.



It is one of the benefits of being an established author with a track record, no matter what type of writing. For most people who don't have publishers coming to them and who do not have an established track record, selling a book involves writing at least a sample chapter. And writing a market analysis. It is hard to pitch a book to a publisher without that much.

And of course no one pre-sells papers. Those need to be written and then submitted. Unless one is invited to submit, which generally only happens to people who are established.

Different rules apply to the start of a writing career than where you are now. A grad student has to expect to write then "sell" for quite a while before they can be where you are now.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 25th, 2012, 7:00 am 

Lincoln wrote:Ursa,

I actually do remember how I got here.



Lincoln,

I am sure you do. Most everyone does.

But your journey did not show in your post and stated approach to writing, only the "here" where you are now. You don't write until it is sold, and you stated that is a benefit of writing non fiction. Not being an established author, but the subject itself.

I would hate for anyone, even years from now, to think that they can sell before they write as a new person in a field. They would be in for a rude awakening.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Lincoln on October 25th, 2012, 7:36 am 

Ursa,

I've sold every book and every article before I wrote them.

Even #1.

The books did require a synopsis and a sample chapter. But that's it. And, even now, with 3-4 books, dozens of articles, and hundreds of online things, I still have to submit the synopsis and sample chapter for a book. The magazine articles and paid online things are sold sight unseen.

Scientific articles for refereed journals are a different story.

I don't mean to suggest that the first one is easy. It's not. It took a year and a half to shop the first book. The second one was a lot easier. I was in the club. Breaking into the Scientific American realm took 5 years of rejection and some creative methods to get accepted. Now, days after the first article, we are talking about #2 (and maybe even #3). Again...in the club.

For all of these writing things, the barrier for the first effort is rather hard. For the kinds of non-fiction I write, academic credentials and pedigree are very, very helpful. And a thick skin is crucial.

Still, the Heinlein advice is far more applicable to a young fiction writer than an academic non-fiction one. Non-academic non-fiction is between the two, but still one can usually sell before writing.

Perhaps you could offer your experience writing science-oriented non-fiction for a popular market?
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 25th, 2012, 8:55 am 

Lincoln wrote:Ursa,

I've sold every book and every article before I wrote them.

Even #1.

The books did require a synopsis and a sample chapter. But that's it.

...

Perhaps you could offer your experience writing science-oriented non-fiction for a popular market?


Lincoln,

So, you wrote a chapter and the details of what the other chapters would include, then shopped it for a year+. Seems writing did come before selling, huh? And I bet you learned how to write the pitch better in that experience. Probably re-wrote your pitch after each rejection.

At the very least your statement on selling before writing was ambiguous and open to a very incorrect interpretation. There is lots of writing to get such a deal for new authors.

As for popularized science in my field, it is mostly popularized and almost no science. Your field is very different in what gets to "popular" outlets. Go to a Barnes and Noble or similar bookstore and look at the "sociology" section sometime. It has very little to do with sociology. More to do with what Oprah might do a magazine feature on. I have absolutely no interest in prostituting myself in that way. It does nothing for my field, it does nothing good for increasing knowledge of the general population, and the money motivates me not at all. And people in my field who do popularize generally lose a great deal of status.

Not that I have a great deal of status as it is, but people do ask me to do things. I doubt I would be contacted as I am by respectable academics if I had written a pop book about, say, sex on the internet.

Which would sell. A lot.

But I can say that ACADEMIC books require the same process as commercial books. Write, then sell, unless you have the track record. And even then, they are generally peer reviewed. Which means they can be stopped after being completed. Not an issue with pop books.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 25th, 2012, 11:13 am 

Lincoln wrote:
Perhaps you could offer your experience writing science-oriented non-fiction for a popular market?


Since doing so in my previous response, I think I will ask myself a slightly altered question.

Perhaps I could offer my analysis of writing science-oriented non-fiction for a popular market?

Why yes, yes I can. It's not like I haven't thought about it before. Analyzed the social relations involved, the psychology of the consumer, the norms and argot of publishing industry, the overarching capitalist ideology involved in the "pay for words" pre-digital model. Read writers speaking about how to get published as well.

If you work the system right, or, in more grandiose terms, "properly work the formal and informal aspects of the bureaucracy", I think you can make a good run at being a writer for pay.



Let's start with the issues at hand. The central issue? A contract for a book. Agreed? Good old economic exchange.

I will go further. I think tooling up to the level we will have to, that's a significant investment. We should shoot for more than a book, singular. A stream of contracts, giving us a good pace to write, and still live. And work, this is part time right? We should consider how many hours we want to put in. Not that many, two pages a day piles up fast.

I say three in the pipeline would make sense as a first goal. I would then write a chapter, a synopsis (probably pretty detailed), and a marketing plan for one idea.

After that, I would come up with two other manuscript ideas, and a one sentence pitch for each.

Then I would shop the first idea around.

To agents. Not publishers.

While doing so, I would flesh out the other two ideas. Using feedback, if any, from the agents. Then later pitch them the other two ideas.

Now, why get an agent? Consider, they know the publishers, they know the market. They will take their cut, but they will EARN it by just letting us write. They sell, they inform drafts with current market tastes. Get an agent. Get an expert. Let them do their thing. Let them negotiate the byzantine details of the publishing bureaucracy.

After that, I would reassess. If I got no agents, I might pitch a few publishers to be sure, but almost certainly bail when that failed. If one sold in the first 2 years, I would probably push on.

I think that would be my analysis of how to get published in the popular market. If you can sell an agent, they will be able to sell your work.

That just seems the most efficient path to me.

Now, I could talk about how to write for a popular audience, but translating geek into muggle is something I normally charge for.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Lincoln on October 25th, 2012, 8:13 pm 

Your proposed method is certainly one approach. Some do it that way. Just not most. Is that how you did it?

I should like to make one correction. The issue is not whether a book is an academic one, but rather if the press is an academic one. Peer review happens for an academic press. Or it did for all four of mine. And any publisher can stop any project at any time. Those contracts are all slanted to where the money is. Maybe it's different for Grisham, Rowling or Clancy....I don't know, I don't move in those circles.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 26th, 2012, 8:55 am 

Lincoln wrote:Your proposed method is certainly one approach. Some do it that way. Just not most. Is that how you did it?

I should like to make one correction. The issue is not whether a book is an academic one, but rather if the press is an academic one. Peer review happens for an academic press. Or it did for all four of mine. And any publisher can stop any project at any time. Those contracts are all slanted to where the money is. Maybe it's different for Grisham, Rowling or Clancy....I don't know, I don't move in those circles.


If you read my posts again, you will find your question has already been answered.

And I think we are clearly using different definitions of "popular".
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Lincoln on October 26th, 2012, 9:13 am 

I did know the answer to my question. It seemed that drawing the distinction might have value to some readers.

"Popular" = "not for experts." That's what the industry means when it uses the term. Obviously the words have non-technical meanings, as in Brian Greene is more popular than Lincoln. But we both write popular (technical term) books.

In any event, your initial advice was spot on for fiction writers. But I will continue to advise aspiring writers of non-fiction popularizations to take a different approach.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 26th, 2012, 9:40 am 

Lincoln wrote:I did know the answer to my question.


So, you are not seeking clear communication then, but trying to take shots? Emphasis on trying.

Duly noted.

I have no interest in your typical tactics. I praised you in this thread, asked about your writing decisions, and then pointed out how what you said might be misinterpreted (sell then write) by those early in their careers (many on the board are in that position). Did I attack you in any way to that point? No. And what did you do then?

"I actually do remember how I got here."

That is snark. I never said you didn't remember. I merely pointed out a gap between your words and the reality for other people in a different career position. You twisted my words. You attack in response to a post that was not attacking you at all. But I guess you must have seen it that way for some reason, though I can't see that reason myself.

Duly noted.

Have fun with that.

To the board:

I am sorry that once again my interaction with Lincoln has gone off the rails. I PMed him yesterday, and invited him to dialog privately to try to work things out between us, at least to the level of stopping this from happening again and again, if not be all buddy buddy. His rather curt reply indicates he has no interest in such a process. I will do my best to unilaterally reduce these situations going forward.
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Re: November 2012 Scientific American

Postby Lincoln on October 26th, 2012, 10:40 am 

I am rather puzzled.

You do realize that my first foray into writing occurred when I had less gray? It's not like I started this when I was tenured or even tenure track.

It's certainly true that the process builds on itself, with the passage through each door opening further doors. But my book writing process (as in how I interact with publishers and how I get a proposal approved) is identical now to when I was a callow youth. The one difference...and it is a biggy, no doubt about that...is how many publishers I have to talk to, as an experienced author is less of a gamble for them than someone untested. One thing I haven't mentioned in this thread is the need for a thick skin, because you need to get used to rejection in the beginning. >>That<< part has substantially improved over the decades.

On the other hand, the distance from what I do and the top of the game is still very long. There are more doors to navigate, hands to shake, emails to write. The process never stops and takes at least a decade to make significant progress. I should get back to it.
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Jordan on October 26th, 2012, 12:15 pm 

First response gets to choose a better thread title.
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Paralith on October 26th, 2012, 1:05 pm 

I'm not quite clear on what the debate is here, but having recently made a foray into the world of literary agents, I've learned about the difference between submitting fiction and submitting nonfiction. If you're submitting a novel that sucker needs to be complete, polished, and ready to go. And you're supposed to be working on your next novel while you shop the already completed one. Nonfiction, on the other hand, is very different. You don't submit a completed work. You submit a book proposal, perhaps with a synopsis, depending on what the agent requires. Basically you submit a plan for a book. Your credentials obviously play a very large role in getting your proposal picked up by an agent. But this is the dichotomy I've seen: fiction must be written and ready to go. Nonfiction is not written but planned. You write it once it's picked up by an agent and/or sold to a publisher.

I don't know how it works with popular magazine articles. From what Lincoln is saying it sounds like the process is similar.

Obviously submitting a research article to a peer reviewed scientific journal requires an already written article. But that's a very different arena.

Now, there is also obviously a difference between having a good plan for a nonfiction book and selling it, and being a good writer. To be a good writer you should do as Heinlein suggests and write many things, and finish them; learn when to let them stand and move on to writing the next thing. Don't edit the same thing forever, in other words. Heinlein's advice very strongly resonates with what I've learned about writing and selling fiction novels, which makes sense because that's what he did and is probably what his list more closely reflects.

It goes without saying that just because you have a scientist's credentials doesn't mean you're going to be a good science writer. Lincoln has worked to achieve both, but again, the process of selling a nonfiction work and being a good writer are two distinct things. I think part of the argument here might be the conflation of these two things.
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Paralith on October 26th, 2012, 1:10 pm 

Oh, and if I'm right about all that, then a more appropriate title for the thread might be "Becoming a Successful Nonfiction Author."

And incidentally, I've read from several literary agents that it is easier to sell a nonfic proposal to publishers than it is to sell novels. But you still have to convince the agent that your book is worth fighting for.
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Lincoln on October 26th, 2012, 1:58 pm 

In what might be a spectacularly unlikely confluence of brevity and seeing eye to eye with Para, I can summarize.

I concur totally.

Now...do tell...what are you trying to write? It's an exciting time to try to put together a book. The beginning of a book-writing career is a bloody nightmare, but it does get easier. Essentially the process of marketing 5 books is >>substantially<< smaller than 5 times marketing the first one. If you're writing a non-fiction thing and it's academic, you have a much easier time with an academic press. You have to deal with the fact that the faculty board of the press is full of academics and all that implies, but it's much, much, much easier than a general publisher. [And I trust that these comments are exclusively relevant to non-fiction.]

I wish you the very best of luck.
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Paralith on October 26th, 2012, 2:42 pm 

It's a fiction novel, actually, so not related to the thread. I finished one and I'm trying to sell it. I guess I'll follow Heinlein's advice and mercilessly push it until someone picks it up.

I left academia for a while thinking I would go back. But it's so nice to be free, I'm not sure I want to go back.
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Lincoln on October 26th, 2012, 3:23 pm 

Half of the graduate students in science leave academia. It's not for everyone. The politics are petty and putting one's life on hold can be very off-putting. There is much truth in phdcomics.com.

Fiction....yeah...totally different. In some regards harder and some easier. It varies from author to author. Personally, I've never been convinced that I could write fiction and the thought of having a couple of 60,000 word unsold doorstops in the bottom of a file drawer is very off-putting.. I know a lot of people who do write fiction, and some of them have modest success and a few with significant success, although I don't know any of the "A-list" writers. Some of my friends are very keen on local writers' groups. One must be careful though. I've found that most of the writers' groups I've encountered are full of people who just aren't very good and they end up writing for each other. It's possibly a fulfilling social experience, but not so helpful in getting published. But a few of the groups are just powerhouses for networking. You might see if there's a local one if that appeals to you.

Again....I do wish you the very best of luck.
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Ursa Minimus on October 26th, 2012, 3:50 pm 

Paralith wrote:Now, there is also obviously a difference between having a good plan for a nonfiction book and selling it, and being a good writer.


Paralith,

I would say Heinlein's advice is squarely on how to be a writer (published) as opposed to someone who sits in a coffee shop and writes stuff.

Being a good writer is another question. It really is a question of translation when it comes to science. Translating your knowledge into a form that people 1) enjoy, and 2) learn from.

That translation can even be multi-stage.

Think of a cool concept or research finding or idea. Give it the full "science" treatment. Outline it, reference it, write it up if you want.

Next, translate that into "Introduction to _________" lecture format. This requires that you not lose the science, but that you are thinking of a slightly informed audience, whose attention can wander, but whose attention you need to keep for an hour. This will likely have you introduce some interesting examples, thought questions, visual aids, maybe some audio or video. You turn the science into a show to a certain extent. Not too much! But just enough sugar to help the medicine go down.

If you have never written a lecture, think of good lectures you have been in. And bad ones. And learn from them.

Next, translate that show into a strictly written form. What does that let you do, or stop you from doing? Video is out. Connections to concepts that might be there from previous class lectures have to be put in. Examples can be extended (the person bought the book, they want to read it, use that). With a broader audience, examples from ancient history (10-20 years) will work where they might not in a classroom of 19 year olds. Some options open, some close. But if you have a good lecture "narrative" the written version should also have a good narrative. The story will be the same. The pacing, the pauses, the asides, the heavy lifting bits, the punching of the big point, all lined up.

Many academics are practiced and skilled at translating science to lecture. What makes for a good lecture that captures the audience and what will lose them. If you can learn to translate there, you can learn to translate to a book form.

-----

Now clearly, one thing you need to do to sell books is to have a hook. You want people to see a bit of your book and want to read the whole thing. How can we up the odds?

You need a single sentence for the title, for each chapter heading, that makes people want to know more. Even better, if they can use it when talking to people AFTER reading the chapter, they will praise your book.

Consider a chapter from Freakonomics: "Why do Drug Dealers Still Live with their Moms?" Or "What do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in Common?"

Do you think the average person on the street would want to know more about those? Do you think the average person might be able to use those chapters in a conversation at a party or bar or with the family? I do. I can imagine someone asking those questions at a party, as a conversation starter. Your titles should make people WANT more. You don't want to get people who are interested, you will get them, you also want to get people who don't know they are interested.

And this is where we get to the core issue. Word choices, sentence construction, the nitty gritty of writing. I wish I could give you a formula, but I can't. Write it until you think it is good, then have others read it and give feedback. Repeat until it is actually good. Words must be crafted.

Those Freakonomics titles have a hook, they are well crafted. They set the topic, they pose a question without an obvious answer, and they allow for the science to provide that answer. If you want a general form of a standard hook for pop books... "What you think is true is false" would be one. "Why everything you think you know about topic is wrong."

Actual titles:

Everything You Think You Know About Politics...and Why You're Wrong
Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong
Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong
Everything You Know about CSS Is Wrong!
50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True

That last one implies the form. I don't suggest this, btw, but it is common because it is "good enough to work" as a hook. If you have nothing else, might as well go with it.

So, good science writing means good translation. And successful good writing means a hook that draws people in and that they will use to propagate the ideas in your book.

The question of actually doing the translations and developing the hooks, that's dependent on the topic, pretty much. I get it easy, my science is ABOUT daily life, so I can make it relevant and accessible fairly easily. How you would do that with, say, genetics, that would be tougher. But I bet talking about dog breeding over time would be a good hook. People like dogs. Cows, not so much. "The DNA of Bacon". People like bacon too. Come on, you want to know more about the DNA of bacon, right? At least that's more interesting to most than "Genetics and Pork Production". Even if the science is the same.

(I have no idea how to write about the DNA of bacon, but I would really be interested to see it done.)

And with that, my day is done, and it is time to pack up these exams and see how my students translated science this time around. I predict... great variation. :)
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Re: Writing science for muggles

Postby Lincoln on November 15th, 2012, 6:59 pm 

Prospective author,

This seems to be relevant. The other day, I just submitted the final manuscript for a new popularization. It's off to the copy editors. The chief editor sent me a pro-forma letter to accept receipt but it also included a list of the 20 stages of how their process works. So these are the steps as defined by the organization who will potentially buy your book. I find this to be essentially universal, where by "universal," I mean "for science popularizations," although most nonfiction work this way. Fiction is very, very different. If an agent is involved, steps 1-4 are first done with the agent and a mixture of agent and author do steps 1-4 with the press.

I post the list verbatim. It's nice, as it's the editor's perspective.

Top end magazines are pretty similar in my experience.

    1. A chat between the acquisitions editor and author(s) (volume editors are herein referred to as ‘authors’);
    2. Submission of a detailed proposal (form provided by the publisher);
    3. If acquisitions editor determines book should proceed, peer review of author’s proposal is initiated;
    4. If acquisitions editor determines reviews warrant proceeding, the author is asked to write detailed response to review(s) and provide a writing sample if not previously submitted;
    5. Acquisitions editor presents proposal, review(s), response to review(s) and financial plan to the editorial committee (composed of the publisher’s senior staff including all subject editors);
    6. If approved, the acquisitions editor presents the proposal and review(s) to the press' senior editorial board;
    7. If approved, the acquisitions editor draws up a contract;
    8. Author signs and returns the contract;
    9. Author writes book (in case of contributed volumes the volume editor(s) acquire chapters and oversees chapter review process);
    10. Author assembles all art in a format suitable for use in the book and acquires permission for the use of all such art;
    11. Author submits the manuscript and art;
    12. If acquisitions editor determines the completed manuscript is suitable, it is sent for peer review;
    13. Author prepares detailed response to peer review comments explaining what final changes will be made in response to final peer review;
    14. Acquisitions editor presents completed manuscript to the editorial committee;
    15. If approved, acquisitions editor presents completed manuscript to senior editorial board for final approval;
    16. If approved, the author’s final, revised manuscript is transmitted to copyediting and production;
    17. Author spends a few months interacting with the copyeditor;
    18. Book moves to design phase;
    19. Book moves to production phase;
    20. Book moves to marketing phase.

Obviously there is nothing in this list that pertains...you know...to actually writing the thing. But it does describe the business side of publishing a nonfiction book.

And, of course, this is utterly useless for Para's project.
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Lincoln
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