Thomas Gilovich, PhD, was pushed into the popular press a little before he expected. He'd mentioned to his tenure committee that someday he wanted to write a book about why people are prone to false beliefs, such as the idea that basketball players have hot streaks or that more babies are born during full moons. His committee passed him, and Gilovich went on sabbatical with his mind at ease—that was, until he got word that his dean wanted to see that book before signing off on Gilovich's tenure.
"I hadn't written a word yet," says Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University. "I thought this was grossly unfair."
But in the long run, Gilovich is glad his dean forced him to pen "How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" (Free Press, 1993).
"It's like writing a grant proposal," he says. "It organizes your thoughts in a broader and deeper way."
Through the book, he saw the wider significance of his research and even got ideas for new studies, Gilovich recalls.
Writing popular-press books is also gratifying because it promotes psychological science to the public, says Jeffrey Brown, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School. In his book "The Competitive Edge" (Tyndale, 2007), Brown draws on cognitive behavioral research to help elite athletes and average people make good decisions in competitive situations-and how to win with one's integrity intact.
"I felt it was a good way of getting an important message to people who wouldn't normally read something academic," says Brown. Getting a book published in the popular press, however, takes a lot of time and a little luck. Here are some steps to help you get your name on Barnes & Noble's shelves.
Hone your idea. A popular-press book must be on a subject that most people care about, not just specialists, says John Eames, a Nashville-based literary agent. Research psychologists, therefore, should consider why a layperson would care about their findings, while clinical psychologists may want to give a fresh perspective on a particular life challenge.
Build your name recognition. Brown had the happy experience of being hunted down by a book publisher, thanks to his status as a well-known sport psychologist. He built his reputation by consulting with the Boston Marathon Medical Team, talking to the media and speaking at conferences. These kinds of self-promotional activities work, says Eames.
"Publishers are really looking for authors who have a broad public platform," he says. "Promoting books nowadays is a huge challenge, and publishers simply don't feel like they can give an author the kind of exposure a book needs unless the author has some kind of platform."
Psychologists may already have more standing than they know, perhaps through an affiliation with a prestigious university, Eames says. Build on that by designing a Web site or blog about the topic you want to publish on, he suggests.
Find your voice. Decades of academic writing can hinder psychologists who want to write for general audiences, says Daniel Tomasulo, PhD, a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist and author of "Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist's Memoir" (Graywolf, 2008).
"In academic writing, the whole idea is to reference and build on past research," he says. "With prose, you have to really capture the reader with a powerful sentence, hook or concept, and make it flow from there."
To learn to write conversationally, Tomasulo enrolled in a masters of fine arts program at The New School in New York. You can also sharpen your writing skills by taking courses at local colleges or online, Tomasulo says.
Contact agents and publishers. Most first-time authors need an agent to get a publisher's attention, says Eames. A good way to meet one is through a published author. "Agents will always pay attention to someone referred by an existing client," he says, noting that he gets far too many unsolicited book proposals to weed through.
You can also meet book agents and publishers at writing workshops, which is how Susan Nathiel, PhD, got her deal to write "Daughters of Madness: Growing Up and Older With a Mentally Ill Mother," (Greenwood, 2007). Nathiel won second place at a pitch contest at a Harvard Writers conference, and two editors contacted her afterward.
"The conference was great," says Nathiel. "It walked me though all the steps for getting a book published, and I connected with someone, got a contract and published a book."
You can also draft a query letter: the snappy, one-page description of your book idea that explains who your audience is and why you're the perfect person to write this book. Mail it to agents who specialize in your intended genre. Many Web sites list agents and publishers, including www.writers.net/agents.html and www.writersmarket.com.
Craft a proposal. Once you've caught the attention of a publisher or agent, they will ask for a full book proposal. Writing one can be almost as time-consuming as writing a book, says Eames. Most proposals outline every chapter and provide two sample chapters. Overall, the book proposal should demonstrate that you can make scholarly ideas understandable to laypeople, says Maureen Adams, a senior acquisitions editor for LifeTools, the APA imprint that specializes in popular-press books.
"If authors have not previously written for a general audience, I look for a sample chapter that shows they can get out of the academic-writing mindset and take the science more toward the mass market," she says.
Hammer out a contract. If you don't have a book agent to help you negotiate a contract, you may want to retain an attorney, says Eames. In either case, pay special attention to how much energy-and money-a publisher will put into promoting your book. If you want input into your book's pricing and cover design, get that in writing as well, advises Nathiel.
Write. First-time authors typically get advances of around $5,000-not enough to quit your day job, says Tomasulo. That means that most people find themselves writing nights and weekends, and you're pretty much on your own, notes Nathiel. "It's not like 30 or 40 years ago, when editors helped you hammer out every sentence," she says. Today, editors generally take a quick look at your finished manuscript and suggest a few global changes, Nathiel notes. To get feedback along the way, tap your most brutally honest friends and acquaintances to read your manuscript, Brown suggests.
Also, be sure to schedule your writing and stick to it religiously, he says. "I gave myself a month to write each chapter, and I wrote a certain amount each day," Brown says. "Publishers' deadlines are absolutely not negotiable."