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Friday, December 16, 2022

Publishing a science book - Lesson #1: The publisher is always right about everything

Don't bother trying to reason with a publisher. All of them have different views on proper style and every single one of them is absolutely certain that their style is the only correct one.

I'm in the middle of the copyedit stage of my book. This is the stage where a copyeditor goes through your manuscript and makes any corrections to spelling and grammar. This is a lot of work for any copyeditor having to deal with one of my manuscripts and I greatly appreciate the effort. My book is a lot better now than it was a few weeks ago. (Who knew that there was only one l in canceled?)

It's also the stage where the publisher imposes their particular style on the manusript and that can be a problem. I'll document some of the issues in subsequent posts but to give you an example, consider the titles of books in the reference list. I wrote it like this: The Selfish Gene and Molecular and Genome Evolution. This is not in line with my publisher's handbook of style so the titles were converted to lowercase as in: The selfish gene and Molecular and genome evolution. I objected, pointing to numerous other science books that used the same titles that are on the covers of the books and suggesting that my readers were more familiar with The Selfish Gene than with The selfish gene.

I was overruled by my publisher who noted that they make their style choices for good reasons—it's for "consistency, clarity, and ease of reading." I assume that publishers, such as Oxford, would make the same argument while insisting that the title should be The Selfish Gene.

In case you ever find yourself in this position, you should keep in mind that your contract will almost certainly say that the publisher has complete control of your book and they can make any changes they want as long as it doesn't affect the meaning of what you wrote.

Here's what it says in my contract, "The Publisher shall publish the Author's work in whatever style and format it thinks most suitable ... While the Publisher may, in its sole discretion, consult the Author with respect to said style and format, the Publisher retains the right to make all final decisions on matters of format, design, selling price and marketing."

I was aware of some issues with inappropriate covers and tiles in the past so I had an extra sentence added to the contract that said, "The Publisher and Author will discuss and agree upon the title and cover design." It's a good thing I put that in because the publisher was pressuring me to change the title of the book and I was able to resist.

Authors can't win most fights over style and format. I've been discussing the publishing of science books with a number of other authors over the past few months and several of them told me not to bother trying to argue with a publisher because they will never give in. They have a set style for all books and they won't make an exception for an individual author no matter how good an argument you make.

I didn't listen to those other authors. Silly me.

I'm thinking of trying to write a standard set of guidelines that scientists could put into their contracts to cover the most egregious style restrictions. It might be helpful if all science writers would insist on inserting these guidelines into their contracts.


Ted said...

Thank you very much Larry Moran. I am hoping to publish a science book, and I would much appreciate all the help I can get.

Jmac said...

You are always right Larry, whenever you are right, or wrong... That is a nature of your pre-ordained world view. Your gravestone should say: "I've never cared what the evidence said beyond my own"

G Tompkinson said...

Cancelled has one L in American English and two in proper English

Larry Moran said...

@G Tompkinson

Most publishers insist that we adopt American spelling and that's okay by me. I just forget from time to time that I can't use proper English in the manuscript.

The other annoying Americanism is that you can refer to Boston or Los Angeles without any qualification but you have to say Berlin (Germany) or Toronto (Canada) because Americans might think that Berlin or Toronto were in the USA. I insisted on writing Boston (USA) and Los Angeles (USA) because Canadians and Germans might think that those cities were in Canada or Germany. :-)

I won that battle. It gets tricky when you mention Edinburgh.