So You Want to Publish a Book?

Summary by Anthony Alaniz

Author Melissa Gaskill, editor Stacy Eisenstark, and literary agent Jim Hornfischer joined session host Juli Berwald in a discussion about the peculiarities of book publishing in the South. The panelists explained their respective roles in the book publishing process.

Hornfischer, president of Hornfischer Literary Management, described himself as a liaison between the New York publishing industry and authors who are looking to reach a national audience. An agent works with a writer to develop a book proposal to sell to a publisher. As an intermediary between author and publisher, agents are there to look after the author’s best interests, beginning by identifying a strong project that can lead to a deal with publishers. In some instances an agent may even seek contracts for publishing rights to an author’s idea and future related work. Although he isn’t opposed to local and regional stories, Hornfischer said he looks for stories of national relevance: “my clients are the writers, but really, my customers are the publishers in New York.”

Eisenstark, an editor at the Texas A&M University Press, explained the unique aspects of a university press, as compared to commercial trade publishers. University presses are typically well connected and engaged in their local and regional communities. With geography playing a bigger role, university presses aim to provide a service to the region by publishing books that are relevant to the local community and that might have otherwise gone unpublished. Eisenstark highlighted that everything a university press publishes has been peer-reviewed by experts. In contrast, commercial presses expect the author to have their writing fact-checked, Berwald noted.

Answering the question of how to get a book published, Hornfischer suggested two approaches. One is for a science writer to produce a narrative in their domain of expertise and establish themselves as the best person suited for the job. Gaskill gave the example of how she was well suited for writing a book on hiking with a dog in the Texas Hill Country, noting that “I write, I hike, I have a dog.” A second way a science writer can publish a book is to collaborate with scientists, bringing the best authority on the subject to the page and serving as communicator between the expert and the audience. “Your job is to help them [the scientist] write their best book. It’s a different role, but the opportunities can be huge,” Hornfischer said. Gaskill gave the example of how she collaborated with a marine biologist and a travel expert to write “A World Wide Guide to Sea Turtles.”

In developing a book proposal, commercial considerations are essential, Hornfischer said. A proposal typically includes a narrative overview (chapter summaries), who you are, what research you’ve done, where you would position your book in the market, and a sample chapter. A good proposal has a succinct summary of the content, and you must make the case about the market for your book, Eisenstark said. It’s important to know your audience – who you’re trying to reach, and why those people would want to read your book. Making that case will help an editor advocate for your book within the press, Eisenstark said. That’s the most important piece – writing skill is secondary, she added.

To close the discussion, Berwald and the panelists discussed the process of finding an agent, all coming into consensus that the agent has to be a good fit. In the words of Berwald, “It’s kind of like dating in a way… I had an agent who never did see the vision the way I saw it, and we had to break up.”

Anthony Alaniz studies biochemistry and social work at The University of Texas at Austin.

Unconventional Science Communication

Summary by Lisa Strong

These days science communication doesn’t just happen on the page. This panel explored a broad swath of ways to communicate science from video to the stage and beyond. To encourage participation and audience camaraderie, this session began with an ice breaker: audience members were encouraged to find someone else with similar shoes. People quickly looked down and around, moving through the crowd to find a matching pair, while laughter and apologies arose as people bumped into each other.

After audience members found seats once again, moderator Nichole Bennett introduced the panelists. Roxanne Bogucka from the UT Science Communication Interest group described her science study breaks. These breaks consist of an expert explaining science in science fiction movies. An example clip was played where a scientist from UT Austin explained to students how Warp Drive from Star Trek may be possible. Bogucka also elaborated on other activities that promote participation to explain science, such as scaling the solar system orbits on a plaza, Science Speed Dating, and Science in Plain English competitions.

Mickey Delp described his NerdNite events as “TED Talks with Beer.” He proudly explained that the speakers were not invited guests, but rather audience members from the previous weeks, emphasizing that these “nerds” were most likely experts in their field and could explain the science better than he could. Another video clip example was shown with speakers on a wide variety of topics to demonstrate his point.

The last panelist was Joe Hanson, who developed a YouTube video series titled “It’s Okay to be Smart.” In the clip shown, Hanson described the size of Big Data by equating a byte to a grain of rice. The viewer could then picture how much a gigabyte or terabyte of data was by how much rice could cover an area. Hanson maintained a humorous tone by making the video in a cheesy 1980’s format to more thoroughly engage the viewer.

After these brief presentations, audience members asked questions. The first couple of questions centered around the process of creating the events and videos. The panelists each described the long journey that got them to where they are and the small support team that helps them. Each panelist now has a team of 4-5 people.

The next set of questions centered around accommodating special needs from diverse audiences. NerdNite has a volunteer to sign the presentation for hard of hearing participants, while YouTube uses community support to translate videos into different languages and UT Austin provides closed captioning.

The final round of questions focused on where communication is going as these unconventional methods become the norm. Bogucka started off with describing the slow process of change in an academic setting and sadly predicting that universities will not adapt to these new methods anytime soon. Delp and Hanson both have seen a rapid growth of interest in science communication communities.

At the end of the session, Delp and Hanson both gave some parting advice. Hanson summarized that there is a wide diversity of communication platforms both for learners and teachers, so it is best to try a few and go with the one you feel most comfortable with. Delp expanded that if you are unsure where to start with your exploration, there are things happening in every city and to just get out there!

Lisa Strong studies biology at The University of Texas at Austin and was the 2017 winner of the Science in Plain English contest.

PIOs Outside the Box: New Audiences, New Ways to Reach Them

Summary by Lisa Strong

This breakout session focused on the ways that Public Information Officers can harness creativity to share their institutions’ stories. Marc Airhart began by introducing himself as the moderator. At the University of Texas at Austin, Marc hosts a 5-10-minute weekly podcast that covers a wide range of scientific topics. He played a clip for the attendees in which he explained the advancements in robotic technology and had a guest researcher at UT further explain.

The panelists then introduced themselves. Rachel Barry from NASA began with PowerPoint slides showing live streams of astronauts in space. Barry explained that she used popular social media platforms such as SnapChat and Instagram to connect with a younger audience by allowing them to directly view the day-to-day life of astronauts. On national coffee day, the astronauts played with coffee in space in the hopes of inspiring excitement for fluid mechanics. She also utilized the social media website Reddit to host AMAs or Ask Me Anythings, where Reddit users could specifically ask astronauts anything.

Rebecca Fowler spoke about her experience reaching audiences using a climate scientist calendar, where different notable climate change scientists posed for each month of the year with a blurb describing their research and lives. This campaign humanized scientists who normally receive a lot of criticism for their work. In a different campaign, Fowler was able to utilize the International Center of Photography’s (ICP) Instagram account to promote awareness of climate change.

The last panelist, Nadia Whitehead, from the University of Arizona Health Sciences, had started a video series using Facebook Live to connect viewers with doctors in real time. Aptly termed the Exam Room, the series promoted awareness of a new medical center while helping the community understand common medical problems.

An audience member asked for advice on choosing the right platform to connect with the community. Rachel explained how her small team frequently coordinates with NASA’s Public Affairs office to increase their resources. But, she added that she would occasionally go rogue when a collaboration was denied because she trusted her gut on a project. Rebecca said that it’s best to start small, like starting a Twitter account, to show your ideas are successful. Once trust is established, beginning a campaign, such as her successful calendar campaign, without first asking for permission is generally better received. She did warn that one must be prepared to take responsibility if a risky project flops.

Next, Nadia was asked how much she had to groom her experts for airtime. Nadia replied that she did not have to train them very much since she had previously worked with most of the experts and knew they were capable of chatting with viewers.

Scientists in the audience then inquired how to manage their presence without a public information officer. Rachel advised them to use a platform that they are comfortable with and be themselves. Rebecca added that they should make sure they are easy to contact. All panelists later encouraged experts to contact journalists if they want to share their findings with the public.

The final round of questions focused on finding the right people to represent their story. Marc and Rebecca agreed that people must be mindful of representing the diverse population they are writing about. Rachel also recounted her experiences of difficulties finding women to be in a social media campaign about Women in Science.

Closing advice from Rachel was to “be unconventional and outside of the box, but make sure your partners are also on board.” She stressed the importance of keeping any experts that are involved on board and informed through the whole process. Nadia concluded by encouraging the audience to try new things.

Lisa Strong studies biology at The University of Texas at Austin and was the 2017 winner of the Science in Plain English contest.

How to Pitch Your Stories to Editors

Summary by Anthony Alaniz

Editors Louie Bond, Tina Casagrand, and Chris O’Connell shared insights into the magazine publishing industry and  the best ways for science writers to pitch successful stories to each of their magazines. Bond, editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, explained that she looks for stories focused on nature in Texas. O’Connell, senior editor at the Alcalde magazine, the alumni magazine for The University of Texas at Austin, will often publish stories that relate to the university and incorporate science. Casagrand, publisher and editor of The New Territory magazine, said that she likes to incorporate science into stories in ways that are relevant to her Lower Midwest audience.

These three editors all discussed strategies of subtly incorporating science into mainstream articles, as opposed to making it the main focus. As O’Connell put it, “Since it’s a general interest magazine, people aren’t there to necessarily read science, science, science.” Indeed, one shared strategy for incorporating more science into an article is to make the human connection:  discuss someone who’s been affected by a particular research project and make it clear to the audience why the science matters to the person.

The three editors agreed that one thing writers must do is familiarize themselves with the magazine they’re pitching. Before pitching, they said, be sure to look through archives to see if the magazine has already published a similar story. “Patience is a great virtue,” Bond added. Writers should understand that some magazines plan far in advance before publication and may not want certain types of articles at a particular time.

The editors also said to keep in mind how well you know an editor when pitching. If a writer is new to an editor, he or she may have to reach out and make a connection. And if a writer doesn’t know an editor well, it’s even more important to be familiar with the magazine and its audience, as an editor will easily be able to tell if a writer hasn’t done that homework. “Put in fifty percent of your research before you do the pitch, because then I’m going to have the confidence that there is a story there,” explained Casagrand.

Anthony Alaniz studies biochemistry and social work at The University of Texas at Austin.

Using Improv to Sharpen Science Communication Skills

Summary by Lisa Strong

The audience rummaged through their personal belongings to find a personal object. The object and story behind it was then transferred to a partner. Then it was exchanged along with the story two more times. At the end, people volunteered to share the final version of the object’s story.

As the stories were told, the audience was asked to make note of what information was retained through three different people. Someone in the crowd offered that emotional and random details were oftentimes remembered more than the nitty gritty information. For example, a pack of mints purchased on a honeymoon in Spain was remembered more vividly than the type of yarn used on ear warmers. Another observation was that the objects that had a story connected to have more fidelity retained compared to those with random facts associated with it.

When the audience began to sit down, the moderator Nicole Bennett began a new exercise where partners were to agree to a story proposed by the other in a gamed termed “Yes and…”. Here partners where supposed to exchange imaginary gifts where the giver initially described the object, the receiver added an additional detail, and the giver added one more detail. Each additional piece of information was supposed to constructively add to the gift instead of destroying the original idea.

Reflecting on the activity, the crowd realized how collaborative the partners became. The ideas became more outrageous the more comfortable the partners became with one another. A safe place for ideas was formed because no one could reject them, only add onto, or improve the original idea.

Nicole then related these ideas back to science communication. She pointed out that when working with a team, its better for creativity to expand ideas instead of outright destroying. Occasionally, this collaborative effort will lead to ground breaking stories. Bennett also demonstrated the importance of writing stories about positive data, because scientist can generally be skeptical when looking at new data. Creating a balance of both sides and not rejecting outrageous ideas can enrich a story, even if the writer must discredit some ideas to not provide false information.

The last activity was an improv story telling exercise call “Bigger Smaller”. Two audience members volunteered to tell a story and when Nicole yelled bigger the volunteers focused on a bigger detail and vice versa when she said smaller. The two volunteers began talking about the time the cat ran away. As the narrative began, the audience erupted in laughter as “Mr. Kitten’s” adventure began. Details of his narrow escape unraveled along with background information as Nicole requested bigger and smaller details.

Reviewing the activity, the audience noted that to tell a story, there must be a good mix of “bigger” and “smaller” information. In any article, the readers must have a good background and motivation to understand the more in-depth information.

Lisa Strong studies biology at The University of Texas at Austin and was the winner of the 2017 Science in Plain English contest.

The Challenges of Reporting on Energy and the Environment in THE SOUTH

Summary by Evelyn Moreno

Texas is best known as an oil and gas state however, it is also rich in flora and fauna, including many endemic species. With an abundance of natural resources, one might believe that reporting on energy and the environment in this region is an easy task. In reality, journalists who cover the beat in the Southface many challenges when reporting such as backlash from businesses and politicians, access to data and more.

David Biello, the moderator of the panel, has been covering energy and the environment since 1999. He kicked off the discussion by describing what the beat entails, stating that even if a journalist is writing about leaves they are also writing about politics in the same article. Biello’s description of the beat resonated with the panelists and encouraged them to share their own take on what it means to cover energy and the environment in the South.

Reporters Kiah Collier with The Texas Tribune, Brendan Gibbons of The Rivard Report and Asher Price from The Austin-American Statesman emphasized the importance of such reporting, stating that it intersects with other beats and applies to everyone, even those who are not very fond of the natural world.

One of Price’s approaches when reporting is to untangle proposed bills and regulations regarding energy and the environment and then relating it to popular issues. By doing so, he hopes that readers may become aware of the oftentimes obscure policies that play a role in their lives.

“I think a lot about the (environmental) beat as illuminating something about broader issues that are going on in society,” Price said. “Whether it’s issues about who controls truth, who controls power, matters of race and a lot about politics… this all intersects. I see my role as trying to illuminate for readers, matters of policy in terms of money and power.”

Like Price, Collier believes that politics play a big role in her reporting. Her approach is to “hold their (politicians) feet to the fire” by presenting them with scientific findings and getting their opinion on certain environmental issues so that the public may know where the politicians stand. In her years of reporting, Collier has noticed that a few lawmakers have shifted how they feel about certain things such as climate change, however, the majority do not reflect the public’s opinion on the matter.

While Gibbons also agrees that politics play a major role on the environment and its coverage, he sometimes prefers to ignore what the politicians have to say and go straight into the science behind topics that have less to do with regulations and more to do with concepts. Gibbons believes that the political back and forth on a scientific issue can detract from the facts. He seeks scientific experts as sources to provide a better understanding on certain topics.

No matter their reporting approach, the journalists all agreed that science should be useful to people in their daily lives and aim to accurately convey the facts in their coverage of energy and the environment in relation to other societal issues.

Evelyn Moreno studies journalism and geography at The University of Texas at Austin, her portfolio can be accessed at