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Chemistry writing beyond books

Writing books – sometimes it’s really, really hard

June 19, 2013

Being an author is hard. It’s hard for many reasons and believe it or not, it’s not all about going to the beach to find yourself, staring out to sea for six weeks, and writing the guts of a NYT best seller. Some people think it is. Nor is it (in almost all cases), about making much money. Some people think it is.

One of the chief frustrations when working as a hired gun is that if the project is based on an idea that somebody else had, there is a certain lack of control over the process – that’s why it’s best if you can be the originator of the idea as well as the author.

Since the publication of my most successful book to date, The Periodic Table, Elements With Style, I have received a pretty consistent flow of emails from readers that have always asked the same question – ‘Why is element X not included?’ I received one this week;

I noticed that in the book “The Periodic Table: Elements With Style”, there is no Polonium page, but he is in the periodic table poster and picture in the book. Do you know if a new version of the book fixed this?

(Age 7)

This is pretty typical, and sometimes the messages are equally charming;

My son, Cal, and I just love your amazing book series. He’s only 4, but passionate about Science. His big thing now is the Periodic Table…and he seems to have discovered that your internal page on Astatine are missing. Shouldn’t it be on page #107? Are we missing something?

Thanks in advance for your insights.

Sometimes they are fascinating;

I am the mom of a 6-year old who is very interested in science.  We just picked up “The Periodic Table” at Boston’s Museum of Science.  He was particularly excited to read about the noble gases.  You see, my great-grandfather was Morris William Travers (aka “Noble Gas Travers”) who worked with Sir Ramsay in discovering these elements in 1898.  My son is actually named after him:  Morris William Henry Smith.  He’s so confused as to why Xenon was left out of the book, though! Please help explain this!

Thanks for such a terrific book, though, even sans Xenon…

Sometimes they reflect (apparent) disappointment;

We are very disappointed about your periodic table book and have composed a list of list of all the element missing; these include:

Francium, Cadmium, Polonium, Astatine, Xenon, Einsteinium, Rutherfordium

These are what we think the most important of the 57 odd elements missing from your book We have contemplated that some of these are a bit boring and would have taken much more time to write, but these are very interesting elements and surely deserve a place in your book?

Sometimes they are less charming and more critical;

An outlier Amazon review

Whatever the tone, my answer is always pretty much the same, and generally takes the following format;

You will appreciate that the book is a commercial enterprise and not necessarily motivated by the necessity to have a complete “textbook” anthology of the elements. The way these things usually work is that the publisher sets parameters and then asks me, as the author, to follow them.

They wanted the book to be a certain length for their own commercial reasons, and often with a multiple of 16 pages, and asked me to work within those restrictions. They actually set the list of elements to be covered. I would have loved to have written more, but they did not want that.

The other answer to your question is that the book is really about “entertainment” and in no way (even dismissing the publishers wishes) did I set out to make it be a total survey of all of the elements, or indeed a reference book of any description. Whilst I have heard from very large numbers of home schooling parents and educators telling me how much they love the book, it was not really written with that market in mind – it’s just not supposed to be a “reference” or “serious” chemistry book in any way, shape or form.

The need for the multiples of 16 pages was neatly explained yesterday by Jill Sawyer who I worked with on a subsequent book when she was working with Scholastic. This blog post of hers gives you the skinny on the page count associated with books (see Jill’s note on Extent and signatures) , and also gives a little insight into the work that goes into preparing even the simplest of books. In short, it’s not all glamor!

Perhaps inexplicably, I LOVE to write, and want to do as much as I possibly can in the future. Maybe it’s a sickness in me!