Prize Nomination, New Book

by Dana Mackenzie on April 29, 2017

Whew! (Stamp, stamp.) I guess I was away for a little bit longer than I expected. Three years, has it been? Well, let me put some tea on the stove and then I’ll tell you about what has happened since my last visit.

Ah, that’s better. Well then, last time I was here, the What’s Happening series was still on volume 9. Volume 10 came out last year, with an assist from Barry Cipra, who wrote three out of nine chapters. If you’re interested in reading some slightly old news about mathematics, you can of course order it from the American Mathematical Society. The six chapters I wrote were about the work of Yitang Zhang on prime pairs; the proof of the Kadison-Singer Conjecture; the curious problem of how to tell which direction a bicycle went just by looking at the path taken by its tires (sometimes you can’t!); mathematical origami; the mathematics of climate change; and finally sports analytics, the data-intensive approach to sports that gave us Moneyball and ended the World Series droughts of the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs.

Even before What’s Happening 10 came out, I was starting work on a new project, called The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect. I’m sure that I will have much more to say about this book as it gets closer to publication date (spring 2018), but here is the teaser.

The Book of Why introduces the reader to a scientific revolution that has taken place in the last three decades, which has for the first time provided a comprehensive mathematical framework for answering questions about cause and effect. For many years statisticians taught their students (and other scientists) to avoid such questions. The prototypical example was the question: “Does smoking cause cancer?” No one would quarrel that smoking and lung cancer were related or associated, because the data showed clearly that they were. But statisticians objected (some of them strenuously) to any claim that we understood why. The tobacco companies were only too eager to exploit this reticence to sow doubt in the public mind, and always to say that “more study is needed.” Meanwhile, thousands of people were dying unnecessarily due to smoking-induced lung cancer.

The absurd taboo (*) against speaking of causes and effects in science has now been lifted, thanks in large part to the work of my co-author, Judea Pearl of UCLA. In this book we explain how scientists can make statements about cause and effect, even in cases when they cannot conduct randomized experiments. The book is liberally seasoned with examples, such as climate change (how sure can we be that man-made global warming caused this heat wave or that storm?) and law (how can we prove that a company discriminates against women, from data alone?). We also have a fun chapter on paradoxes, in which we show that such brain-teasers as the Monty Hall paradox and Simpson’s paradox are really misunderstandings about causation.

Hopefully that has whetted your appetite for more! But let me move on now to my third and final news item, about one of my older books, The Universe in Zero Words. To my complete surprise, I learned last week that the Italian edition of this book, called l’Universo senza Parole, has been short-listed for the Premio Asimov. This is a prize for popular science books (in Italian), administered by the Gran Sasso Scientific Institute. It’s a literary prize with a twist: the jury consists of 1,400 high-school students!

This delights me in so many ways. First, I am very impressed that the prize committee was able to find more than a thousand students who were willing to vote on their favorite current science books. I think this says something about the quality of the Italian educational system. Also, while I was writing The Universe in Zero Words, I often thought of my readers as bright teenagers who wanted to learn more than their teachers could tell them. This doesn’t mean it’s a “young adult” book — I wanted to reach adult readers too — but nevertheless I’m thrilled to have my book judged by this age group. If they like it, I will feel as if I have accomplished one of my goals.

So that’s what is new. I imagine that updates will be coming more frequently in the year ahead, and perhaps there will even be a re-design of the whole website. But that remains to be seen …

(*) A friend of mine who is an M.D. told me a joke (which I did not put in the book) about the willful blindness of scientists toward causation. One morning a scientist had a big argument with his wife. When he came back home that evening, he found that she had moved out of the house. “Oh well,” he said. “It’s only an association.”

If you don’t get this joke, you haven’t had your worldview warped by graduate school yet. Congratulations!

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The Big Splat: A Fond Look Back, and Lessons Learned

by Dana Mackenzie on January 22, 2014

Today I’d like to tell you the behind-the-scenes story of my first book, The Big Splat, or How Our Moon Came to Be, which celebrated its tenth year in print a few months ago. As you’ll read below, The Big Splat has sort of been “put out to pasture” by its original publisher, which is why I’ve been thinking about it lately in the past tense. However, don’t let that dissuade you! It’s still very much available through Amazon, for instance.

This post is intended especially for first-time authors, who may find their way to it somehow through the miracle of the Internet. But other people might be interested, too, in how a first-time author breaks into the book market.

Hatching the Idea

Where does the idea for a book come from? I wish I could give you a universal answer. My two books have been completely different. In the case of The Big Splat, it came from attending a meeting in Monterey, California, on the origin of the Earth and Moon. I went to this meeting in December 1998 almost as a whim, but I did check with my editor at Science magazine and he said that if I heard anything newsworthy they would be glad to run an article about it. So you could say I was semi-on assignment.

There were 100 planetary scientists at the meeting and one reporter — me. Of these 100 planetary scientists, 99 of them were talking about one theory of the moon’s origin, called the giant impact theory, basically as a done deal. I wouldn’t say they were all believers — they were maybe two-thirds believers and one-third agnostics — but by a 99 to 1 majority they felt that the giant impact hypothesis was the best one that anybody had come up with.

This totally stunned me, because I thought I was a fairly well-read person in scientific matters, yet I had never heard of this giant impact theory. Later on, the more I read about it, the more I felt that there had been a communication failure of stupendous proportions. The U.S. taxpayers spent $25 billion to send men to the moon. Although, as we know, science was not the main reason, nevertheless it was a part of the reason. When researching the book later, I found a document from the mid-60s listing the top ten scientific questions to be answered by the Apollo missions. Number one on the list was: What was the origin of the moon?

At the Monterey meeting I saw that the planetary scientists had answered that question to their satisfaction, but nobody had ever bothered to tell the public! Of course I wrote my article for Science magazine. But even after that, for months, the thought kept bothering me: “Somebody should write a book about this…”

Selling the Book: Pre-Publication

Okay, so you’ve got the idea for a book, now how do you sell it?

Again I think every case is different. But my case shows, in spades, that it helps to know somebody.

As a graduate of the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, I’m on a mailing list that keeps us informed of all the new jobs that open up in science writing. One time, in late 1999, there was a somewhat different post on the mailing list. An editor at John Wiley & Sons named Jeff Golick was looking for someone to write a book on a particular topic (I’ve forgotten what it was). I procrastinated for about a week, then e-mailed him and said I would be interested. He told me they had already found a writer. And then I e-mailed back the fateful words: “By the way, I have another idea …”

Jeff Golick was a writer’s dream editor. He could have said no, they had a writer for the project they were looking for and that’s that. But he listened to my idea, thought it was great and encouraged me to write a proposal. At that point, I didn’t even know what was supposed to be in a book proposal. (Answer: A short outline of the book in a few pages; a statement about the author’s qualifications; a market analysis of what comparable books have been written; and possibly a sample chapter.) I wrote one up quickly, he took it to his boss, and the answer came back: No.

The next part of the story is a bit of a comedy, as I did some of the things that I should have done first, before I ever talked with Jeff. I talked with other writers. I found out who their agents were. I talked with an agent. She looked at my proposal and told me some ways I could improve it. I rewrote the proposal. Then she bailed. She said she had talked with a couple of publishers, and “They’re doing biographies this year.”

I kid you not. Just as if it were the latest fashionable color: “This year we’re doing pink.” Because my proposal wasn’t pink enough, I was out of luck.

So what could I do? Well, one thing I could do was send the proposal back to Jeff. By now I had wasted a lot of time; it was already late 2000 or early 2001. But he remembered me, agreed that the proposal was even stronger than before, and took it back to his boss. And this time the answer came back: Yes.

Subsequently I learned that this almost never happens. First-time authors never sell their books to traditional publishers without an agent. It happens maybe one time out of a thousand (according to Writer’s Market). Actually, I think that my odds were a good deal better than one in a thousand. First, this was non-fiction, and I think that Writer’s Market was mostly referring to fiction. Second, I had a good resume, thanks to all of that magazine writing. Third, I knew someone at Wiley (if only via e-mail). And fourth, I did have a little bit of help from an agent, even if she flaked on me in the end.

Still, there is a moral here: I should have talked with other writers first. As soon as I had the book idea, I should have started looking for an agent. I did everything in the wrong order. Even though I managed to sell the book without an agent and was pretty pleased with myself for beating the odds, not having an agent did hurt me in the next step: negotiating a contract.

Negotiating the Contract

I had talked with a friend who had written his first science book (he was the one who gave me the name of the agent who bailed on me), and he told me that he had gotten a six-figure advance. That sounded like pretty heady stuff to me, so it was a huge letdown when I got Wiley’s first offer for an advance. Five figures. Looow five figures: $10,000.

I talked with other friends who thought that Wiley was low-balling me. I counter-offered $15,000, and they agreed. In fact, judging from later events, I think that they knew exactly what they were doing, and $15,000 was the number they planned on all along. The low-ball first offer was just a way to get there.

Now let me address the question: Why is an agent important? The reason is that they would know the score. They would know the number the publisher is trying to get to, and the number that I should be able to get. But even more important, they could play the market. An agent would send out my proposal not just to one publisher, but to several. Ideally, they could set up a bidding-war situation where two or more publishers are bidding on my proposal. (This may be why my friend got such a big advance.) Without an agent, I had no leverage. It was Wiley or bust.

I also suspect that an agent might have gotten the publisher to put more effort into promoting the book. As I mentioned earlier, I think that $15,000 was the number Wiley had in mind all along, because they figured the book had a decent chance of selling enough copies to earn back that advance. In the end, that’s almost exactly how much the book eventually earned. If an agent had pushed Wiley up to $20,000 or $25,000, then I think they would have been forced to promote the book harder. I don’t know this for a fact, but it’s just a theory. Alternatively, the agent might have found a different publisher, with deeper pockets and more marketing muscle.

The moral is: Penny wise, pound foolish. Not having an agent meant that I didn’t have to pay an agent’s commission. But it also may have meant less exposure for my book and fewer sales in the long run.

Writing the Book

So, according to the contract, I had about thirteen months to write the book. They were the most fun thirteen months ever. The book had twelve chapters, so it was about one chapter a month, one story a month, which was a perfect pace for me.

In keeping with my spirit of transparency about the book-writing process, I should also tell you that the year I spent writing The Big Splat was my worst year ever financially as a writer. The advance of $15,000 wasn’t even half a normal year’s income for me, and yet it was supposed to sustain me for a year? Hmmm. Of course I did some writing on the side, but not much. So I starved that year, but it was a very happy starvation.

This is the catch-22 of book writing. On the one hand, it’s a terrific thing for your name recognition. A lot of people don’t think you’re a real writer unless you’ve written a book. There’s also a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. When you’ve written a book, it’s permanent — unlike magazine articles, which are here today and gone tomorrow. But the economics of it haven’t worked for me. (Yet.) That’s why I have written only two mass-market books so far.

Selling the Book: Post-Publication

The Big Splat came out in April 2003. And as with everything else in this process, I was completely unprepared.

Part of being an author is that you are the book’s #1 marketer. You need to get out there and tell the world what’s so great about it. The world will not come to you.

I had expected the publisher to organize book readings, because that’s what publishers do, right? Wrong! As far as I can tell, the only thing that Wiley ever did for publicity was send out a press release to a list of about 200 news outlets. I’m not complaining; it was business as usual for them. In fact, that press release was a good thing, because I’m sure it led to some reviews, and it led to one interview on a syndicated radio show.

Still, I had been living in a fantasy land where the publisher organizes some kind of big author tour for you, and so I was shocked at how different the reality was. One radio interview. Anything else was up to me. And unfortunately, I was terrible at self-promotion. I was embarrassed even to go up to a counter of a book store and say, “I’ve written this book, would you be interested in scheduling an author event?”

First-time authors, you’ve got to take this message to heart: Author = Salesman. And you’ve got to start thinking about it before publication. At least three and preferably six months before, you should be lining up author events, sending out queries to magazines to ask if they would like to publish excerpts. If you start when the book is published, it’s too late. And for God’s sake, get rid of any embarrassment or modesty you might feel. Tell the world why your book is hot stuff, make the readers want to buy it. Get in touch with why you wanted to write it in the first place!

In the end, I did four book readings, two at bookstores and two at astronomy clubs. And actually my hometown book reading was one of the most rewarding events of my life. It was like “This is Your Life,” with all my friends coming from different parts of my life, and it was a chance to share with all of them what I’d been doing for the past year. That reading sold 33 books. A drop in the bucket, really, but what it did for my morale was much greater.

The Long Tail

A month after the book came out, a stunning thing happened: my editor was laid off. Jeff was really the only advocate for my book at Wiley. I don’t know how to feel about what happened. Terrible for him, of course. For The Big Splat, it was unfortunate because it became an orphan, with nobody at Wiley to say, “Let’s promote this book a little bit harder.” On the other hand, I was lucky that Jeff didn’t get laid off half a year or a year earlier. Then the book might have gone into limbo and never gotten published. Such things have happened.

I’ve read some interesting things about the book business since The Big Splat, which are strongly confirmed by my experience. First, the first six months are crucial. They’re basically everything, as far as the publisher is concerned. You can see why if you just look at the numbers. The Big Splat sold 4200 copies in the first six months, and 3300 in the ten years after that. That’s why all of the marketing and promotion has to happen fast or not at all. Another thing I’ve read is that the first printing of a book is really just a trial marketing period. Most books never make it past that first printing. If the book is a success, then the publisher starts putting some effort into it, puts out a paperback edition, etc.

One thing that frustrated me for the longest time was that I didn’t know what would make the book a success, from Wiley’s point of view. How many copies did it have to sell? With Jeff gone, I didn’t really have anyone to ask. So I had to work with crumbs of information. I read an interview with another science writer who said that for a science book, 25 thousand copies would be a big hit. Obviously The Big Splat was not in that category. Was it a failure?

It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I finally got some kind of answer. The editor who had been assigned to me after Jeff left mentioned (after I had bugged him about it a few times) that after the hardback sold 8000 copies they would consider putting it out in paperback. When I looked at my royalties and projected the numbers out, I realized that 8000 copies would also be just enough (or slightly more than enough) to earn back my advance of $15,000. That’s why I think that Wiley had that number in mind all along.

In the end, I think that The Big Splat came really, really close to being financially successful. It sold 7500 copies. It earned back its advance, which happens only to one out of four books (according to what I’ve read), so I beat the odds again. After you earn back the advance, you can start getting royalties, so I did get to see some (very small) royalty checks.

However, The Big Splat never sold 8000 copies, never went to paperback, and last spring Wiley finally gave up on it. They sold the remaining copies to some company called Turner Publishing, which is continuing to distribute it. That’s probably better than remaindering (when they clip off a corner of the book and start selling it for huge discounts). You can still buy The Big Splat, but basically its career is over.

In this post I have concentrated mostly on the financial and business aspects of publishing a book, because I wanted to demystify those things. Of course there is a completely different aspect — the personal reward, the feeling of accomplishing a goal, the service I did to the world by telling a story that nobody had told before. Eventually the book led to two appearances on national TV, which was really a thrill. (By then I had learned not to be embarrassed.) More importantly, I think that the general public does know about the giant impact theory now, at least much more than they did in 1998.

Even the scientific community paid a little attention. Before my book, there was no standard nomenclature for the planet that ran into the Earth, in the “giant impact” that created the moon. I called the planet Theia, the mother of the moon in Greek mythology. It wasn’t my idea — that name had been suggested previously by one author in one scientific paper. But it now seems to be standard, and I’d like to think that my book helped make it so.

For any readers who want to be authors, especially of non-fiction books, I hope that this lengthy post has been helpful. If any of you have comments, or especially if any of you read this post and it helps you advance your career, I’d love to hear about it!

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Photo, paperback, and other updates

October 23, 2013

My editor for the American Mathematical Society, Ed Dunne, took this photo recently when he was visiting Washington University in St. Louis. I’m delighted to see that The Universe in Zero Words is still on the shelves after a year, and keeping such good company! Note, for instance, my book’s chief competitor on the shelf [...]

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Scientific American article published

June 18, 2013

For years there has been one writing credit missing from my resume. I like to tell people that I have written for all the magazines that have “Science” in the title: Science, American Scientist, New Scientist, Science News (assuming you count their Web publication Science News for Kids). But I had never written for Scientific [...]

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Give-away time!

May 20, 2013

Time for another Goodreads giveaway! From Tuesday, May 21 through Friday, June 7, you can go to and enter to win a free copy of my latest book, What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences. I’m offering three free copies. Last summer I had a give-away promotion for The Universe in Zero Words that attracted [...]

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“What’s Happening” Volume 9 available for pre-order!

May 1, 2013

Yesterday the UPS deliveryman left a heavy box on my doorstep. Sender: American Mathematical Society. I knew immediately what it was: the complimentary copies of my new book, What’s Happening in the Mathematical Sciences, Vol. 9. As you can tell from my Web page, What’s Happening (or WHIMS for short) is an ongoing series of [...]

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First column for Slate published

April 25, 2013

Today my first article for Slate, What’s the Best Jury Size?, was posted. I’m pretty excited because this is a new venue for me, and one that has a very large audience. While Slate started out as a website that was mostly about politics and culture, it is now in the process of beefing up [...]

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Chess article published on Story Collider

December 14, 2012

Today I had an article published that was a little bit out of the ordinary, or perhaps way out of the ordinary for me. It’s called The Departed Queen, and it was posted on a website called Story Collider. It’s about the best chess game of my life, along with the unusual circumstances that made [...]

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Joint Mathematics Meeting Events

December 12, 2012

The Joint Mathematics Meetings (the “largest mathematics meeting in the world,” according to the website) are coming to San Diego in January! I will appear in two events at the meeting: On Friday, January 11, from 1:00 to 2:00 pm, I will sign copies of The Universe in Zero Words at the Princeton University Press [...]

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Feel Like Liking Something?

November 23, 2012

To my Goodreads friends, my Facebook friends, and anyone else who might read this: The Facebook page for my book, The Universe in Zero Words, has now gotten 25 “likes,” which means it is 83 percent of the way to 30 “likes.” If I reach that milestone, according to Facebook, I would “get access to [...]

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