Between the Lines: Publisher Ponders Future of Environment Books

March 1, 2016

Between the Lines

For the latest installment of Between the Lines, an author Q& A, SEJournal book editor Tom Henry digressed from the writer’s point of view and sought out advice from a publishing company that specializes in energy and environment books. Founded in 1984, Island Press is a nonprofit that has published books by E.O. Wilson, Paul Ehrlich, Sylvia Earle and many other well-known writers. David Miller, Island Press senior vice president and publisher, gave us his thoughts.

David Miller, senior vice president & publisher of Island Press. Photo courtesy of Island Press

SEJournal: Island Press obviously has a focus on books about nature, energy and the environment. But in what other ways does it distinguish itself from other publishing firms?

David Miller: Island Press often gets thought of as being somewhat narrower in scope than we in fact are. Today, environmental issues touch pretty much every aspect of our social and personal lives — not just the natural world. They affect our cities, health, economics [and] politics; that is, nearly every aspect of our lives. For example, issues around social justice and equality have become critical factors in the way we look to build a more sustainable society and repair the environmental damage we’ve already done.

Island Press looks to be equally broad in the way we develop our role as a publisher in an increasingly digital world. We see an opportunity to think differently, as we are doing with innovative efforts like our Urban Resilience Project, which works with authors (and many thought leaders who aren’t our authors) to develop articles and opinion pieces that promote a broader vision for what a resilient city should be. Our partnership marketing efforts promote our authors and their books through a network of nearly 100 regional and national environmental organizations.

Of course, publishing books remains at the core of what we do and thoughtful editing and imaginative marketing and selling are still vitally important. Our size and focus allows us to do both while forming much closer relationships with our authors than larger publishers often do. We understand the issues that matter to our market, and we share our authors’ commitment to making a difference. We believe that an effective partnership with authors is the best way to do so.

SEJournal: Let’s say you’re an SEJ member who wants to put together his or her first book proposal. How long should it be, how much specific detail about each chapter should be included, etc.? In other words, what are the elements of a winning book proposal?

Miller: I’ve seen great proposals that are seven pages long and I’ve seen great proposals that are 70 pages long. As a general rule, proposals should begin with an overview that describes not the book you want to write, but the ideas that inform your book and why they are important, distinctive or newsworthy. Focus on whatever will make your book stand out in the world of ideas.

Next, you need a descriptive table of contents, the length of which can vary. Narrative books, for example, often have more comprehensive chapter descriptions to show off narrative skills. Most of all, you want the table of contents that demonstrates how you’re going to take the ideas in the overview and develop them in a book.

Finally, you need to tell us about yourself, why you’re the right person to write this book, what you can do to promote your ideas and your thoughts on how the book fits into the market. In this respect, it’s often as important to present comparable books as competitive books, since that is a great way to indicate just who is likely to want to read your book.

As much as possible, especially in narrative nonfiction, your proposal should take us directly into the book, as though we’re reading it. I recommend getting a copy of “Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published” by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.). It is the best guide I’ve seen on thinking about the book you want to write and how to write an effective proposal for it.

SEJournal: Gaze into your crystal ball. Where do you see the market for environmental-energy books headed?

Miller: We no longer need to convince many people that renewable sources of energy are both here and they represent the future even in a time of cheap fossil fuels. Increasingly, readers will be looking for books that describe how our existing energy infrastructure needs to adapt to best take advantage of these new technologies, the models that the energy industry needs to adopt, and the economic and regulatory policies that will enable it all. And there will always be a need for books that tell the stories of those who are innovating successfully in the field.

SEJournal: What should writers know about the publishing industry today as opposed to five years ago and what should they expect in the next five years, from publisher preferences to marketing strategy?

Miller: Publishing, like all other media industries, has been greatly challenged by the transition to an increasingly digital world. Despite what you sometimes read, it is adapting and it’s weathering the storm reasonably well. Today, an author is likely to see Amazon account for more than half the sales of her book. In five years, it will likely account for even more. But independent bookstores, in particular those that are rethinking what a bookstore can be, are coming back strong and have good prospects for maintaining their importance.

Marketing is increasingly a function of an author’s ability (and willingness) to become an effective promoter of their ideas and that’s not going to change. I believe the next five years are going to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

SEJournal: It seems like there are a lot more environmental-energy books being produced these days than years ago. Is that true? Is there something to explain the trend and if it will continue?

Miller: If there are more, I think it’s mostly because advances in technology are offering us real choices for remaking the energy sector and thus opportunities for books that present both the possibilities and solutions to the barriers to getting there. I think that the environmental after-effects of fossil fuel extraction are going to be the subject of at least a few dozen books, once they become better known.

SEJournal: Books about climate change have almost saturated the market, and the issue is finally resonating with more people, especially with 2015 being a record year for warmth and the Paris agreement bringing together almost 200 nations on a clearer path. What advice do you have for writers pursuing new book angles on climate change? What angles haven’t been done that need to be done?

Miller: I might suggest that it would be difficult to write a book on the environment that isn’t in some way connected to climate change, so your question is a good one. First, don’t compete with the news. Instead, go deeper and tell the stories around climate change. Telling stories isn’t a new angle, of course. But each story is unique and can be told in ways that are compelling and effective.

SEJournal: As a publisher, do you prefer a folksy, conversational tone or one that is more pointed and direct? Does it just depend on the book? What can you tell us about the industry’s preference for writing tone?

Miller: There’s no right answer here. Your tone needs to fit the subject matter and the needs of the audience, while being true to your own voice and expertise. We’re looking for clear and compelling writing that fits those needs. Most important, whether you’re writing about serious science, the wonder of nature or unwinding an environmental mystery, write in a way that invites your reader into the book, that engages him with your narrative.

SEJournal: Some authors associated with SEJ have made the point that big isn’t always better. How do writers know if they should pitch a university press, a niche publisher such as Island Press or a major national chain?

Miller: Big isn’t always better, nor is it always worse. The audience you want to reach can be an important indicator of which publisher to consider.

Imagine the media you need (not want; everyone wants the New York Times Book Review) to be reviewing or writing about your book. If it’s a journal, a university press is probably worth considering. If it’s Vanity Fair, you probably want a very commercial publisher. But publishers don’t come in neat boxes and it’s often hard to know what is going to be of interest to anyone. You can, of course, submit to more than one publisher and to more than one type of publisher.

Don’t, however, think of only small publishers as “niche” publishers. Random House and HarperCollins are just as much niche publishers as Island Press is. Both of them publish very particular kinds of books that meet certain criteria that fits well with what they do best. The ones that publish hundreds of books, in fact, need them to fit easily with what they do best and they look for books that fit that niche perfectly. Each has their own well-developed criteria and style, even if they publish books in a great many subject areas.

Smaller, more focused publishers can often do exactly what the larger publishers do and they also have the ability to try some different and more imaginative approaches to publicizing and selling your book. Size isn’t always a great indicator of whether a given publisher is the best one for you and your book.


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Spring 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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