Top Five Tips on Book Writing

Snoopy writing

I’ve written four books, and am currently writing and editing a fifth (The Princeton Companion to Applied Mathematics). I am also an editor of two SIAM book series and chair the SIAM Book Committee. Based on this experience here are my top five tips about writing an (academic) book. These cover high level issues. In a subsequent post I will give some more specific tips relating to writing and typesetting a book or thesis.

1. Identify Your Audience

Book publishers ask prospective authors to complete a proposal form, one part of which asks who is the audience for the book. This is a crucial question that should be answered before a book is written, as the answer will influence the book in many ways.

As an example, you might be contemplating writing a book about the numerical solution of a certain class of equations and intend to include computer code. Your audience might be

  • readers in mathematics or a related subject who wish to learn about numerical methods for solving the equations and are most concerned with the theory or algorithms,
  • readers whose primary interest is in solving the equations and who wish to have lots of sample code that they can run,
  • readers in the previous class who also need to learn the language in which the examples are written.

The choice of content, and how the book is presented, will depend very much on which audience you are writing for.

2. Revise, Revise, Revise

Just like a paper, a book draft needs to go through multiple revisions, and you must not be afraid to make major changes at any stage. You may receive constructive criticisms from reviewers of your book proposal, but reviewers may not have time to read the complete manuscript carefully and you should not assume that they have found all errors, typos, and areas for improvement.

3. Take Time to Choose Your Publisher

Given the huge effort that goes into writing a book you should take the time to find the right publisher. Discuss your book with several publishers and compare what they can offer in the way of

  • format (hardback, paperback, electronic) and, if more than one format, the timescale in which each is made available,
  • if the publisher has branches in more than one country, how price and publication schedule will differ between the countries,
  • whether you are allowed to make a PDF version of the book freely available on your website, if this interests you,
  • willingness to allow you to choose the book design (page size, font, cover, etc.),
  • use of colour (which increases the cost),
  • royalties (including a possible advance),
  • pricing,
  • the publisher’s policy on translations,
  • copy editing (see the next section),
  • time from delivering a completed manuscript to publication,
  • marketing (will the book be advertised at all, and if so how?), and
  • how long your book is guaranteed to stay in print.

It is perfectly acceptable to submit a proposal to several publishers and see what they are willing to offer. However, it is only fair and proper to make clear to a publisher that you are talking to other publishers and, once you have set the wheels of a publisher’s review process in motion, to wait for an offer before making a decision to go with another publisher.

I am always surprised when I hear of authors who approach only one publisher, or who go with the first publisher to express an interest in the book. As in many contexts, it is best to make an informed choice from among the available options.

4. Ensure Your Book is Copy Edited

If you are an inexperienced writer, or your first language is not English, the benefits of copy editing are obvious. But even an experienced author finds it virtually impossible to think about all the little details that a copy editor will check for, such as correctness and consistency of spelling, notation, punctuation (notably the serial comma), citations, and references. For example, I sometimes mix US and UK spellings and don’t want to have to worry about finding and correcting my occasional lapses. A good copy editor will also suggest minor improvements of the text that might escape even the best writers.

Unfortunately, not all publishers copy edit all books nowadays. Notable exceptions that always do copy edit (and, as I know from experience, work to the highest standards in every respect) are Princeton University Press and SIAM.

If your publisher has a Style Manual it obviously makes sense to follow its guidelines in order to minimize changes at the copy editing stage. Here is a link to the SIAM Style Manual.

5. Think Twice Before Co-Authoring a Book

It might seem an attractive proposition to share authorship of a book: surely having n co-authors reduces the work by a factor 1/n? Unfortunately it often does not work out like that, despite best intentions. In fact, n co-authors can easily take n times as long to write a book as any one of them would. One of the biggest difficulties is timescale: one author may be willing and able to finish a book in a year but another may need twice that period to make their contribution. Indeed it is rare for the co-authors to be matched in the amount of effort they can put into the book; this is clearly problematic if initial expectations are not realized. Other potential problems are potentially differing opinions on content, notation, level, length, and almost anything else associated with a book.

Successful authorship teams often have a track record of co-authoring papers together. Although it is no guarantee that a much larger book project will run smoothly, experience with writing papers together will at least have given a good indication of where disagreements are likely to lie.

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One Response to Top Five Tips on Book Writing

  1. thenoveilst says:

    As a recently published author of two books myself, I can totally relate to this. Very useful tips…

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