Readers are demanding more intelligent nonfiction books, according to the trade publication The Bookseller. Alex Preston writes in The Guardian, “These uncertain times have seen a renewed interest in serious nonfiction, as people try to make sense of an unstable world.”
Four CASW board members are at the forefront of this shift in the nonfiction book market with newly published titles about science. We asked Christie Aschwanden, Deborah Blum, Thomas Lin and Betsy Mason what drives their readers’ interest in science and why books by science writers appeal to publishers. All four, who have published books within the last year, responded enthusiastically to our questions.
Author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery, W. W. Norton & Company 2019. A New York Times Sports and Fitness Bestseller.
- Good to Go is targeted at people who exercise, but it’s not necessarily angled for people who are serious or elite. I wanted to write a book about metascience that the masses would read, so framing these issues around sports studies seemed like a good way to do that.
- I’m finding that people really are interested in learning more about how to distinguish strong studies from weak ones, and they want to learn how to assess scientific evidence.
- [Publishers] know that they can trust science writers to understand scientific concepts and make them interesting to an audience. Science writers have the skills needed to assess studies and find the best references.
- Writing a book is really hard, but it’s also been the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my career. When you finish, you have a tangible object that is yours. It’s a great feeling.
Author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Penguin Press 2018. A New York Times Notable Book of 2018.
- I'm always interested in the audience that doesn't necessarily follow science, people who have become convinced that it's not important in their everyday life. That's my focus––the science of the everyday and why it matters to all of us. This book is about food safety, about a crusading scientist, about the decisions we make about food policy.
- I get so many letters from people talking about the importance of science in food safety, and when I go out on a book talk about this book, that's what people want to know. What does science tell us about food safety, and do we follow what research tells us?
- I think [publishers] get that readers care about these ideas and that a good science writer knows how to take a story like this - with all its complex science and ethical dilemmas - and turn it into a compelling read.
- I like to build a story around a person or persons whose career is entwined with the science that interests me - but there are also books that explore issues with insight. Another writer once said to me that the most successful science books are either narratives or argument, and I think that's largely true.
Editor of The Prime Number Conspiracy: The Biggest Ideas in Math from Quanta and Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire: The Biggest Ideas in Science from Quanta, both published by The MIT Press in 2018.
- Alice and Bob Meet the Wall of Fire tells the stories of the best efforts by physicists and biologists over the past five years or so to answer the most basic questions we have about our universe. The Prime Number Conspiracy takes a similar approach but focuses on the mysteries of the mathematical universe. Both books are intended for anyone who's intellectually curious about our natural and logical worlds.
- As the editor of Quanta magazine, I've seen ample evidence that our science articles appeal to readers from a wide range of backgrounds. We have readers who are high school, college or graduate students, retirees, artists and filmmakers, scientists and engineers, coders and technologists, business people and bankers, and of course writers and journalists. The common thread is that we're all curious and want to know more.
- Science writers are in a good position to bridge that gap [between lay readers and the scientific literature], to deliver scientific ideas to the public in an accessible and compelling way.
- All of these new books by CASW board members are excellent: you can't go wrong with any of them.
Author, with Greg Miller, of All Over the Map: A Cartographic Odyssey, National Geographic 2018.
- I often say that people who don't love maps just haven't met the right map, and this book has a map, and a story, for everyone. Our stories use maps as a starting point for stories about people, history, money, politics, and of course, science.
- Maps are a wonderful framework for stories about science. I've found that when I talk about the maps in the book to a lay audience, they always have the most interest in and ask questions about the maps and stories that touch on science.
- I think publishers like to work with people who are either experts on a topic or are good storytellers. With journalists, they get both in one. I imagine this combination is particularly attractive with topics like science that have a reputation for being dry and difficult to understand.
These works, of course, are hardly the first by CASW board members and won’t be the last. CASW Treasurer Richard Harris's Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, was published by Basic Books in 2017. And as he retired from the Council in 2018, Tom Siegfried was polishing his fourth science book, due out this September from Harvard University Press. The Number of the Heavens will tell the story of one of the liveliest controversies in cosmology today, the notion that multiple parallel universes exist.