Brain Reel #18

The latest science drama, let's talk about my book money, how to not be a slave to emails

Morning folks (or afternoon, or evening, or whatever time or timezone you find yourself in right now),

I’m writing this from Rye, down on the south coast of England, where writing-pal Alexa and I are finishing up the latest rounds of edits to our books. It’s sunny, it’s quiet, it’s perfect.

If you are looking for a couple of days of focus to do something, I highly recommend an Airbnb by the coast somewhere. These mini trips are not only hugely helpful in giving me space for clarity of thought for writing, they are also wee resets, which I tend to only realise I really need once I’m already away. They aren’t holidays - we’re sitting on our laptops a lot of the time - they are simply a way for us to segment time and get whatever we need done, done.

I arrived on Friday, here till Monday, 3 nights plus trains split between 2 is less than £150. 3 course meal with drinks the other night was £20 each. (And we could have been cheaper but we wanted a nice view…)

DIY working retreats with a pal are fab. Highly recommend.


🔬 Science Reel 🔬

There’s a big story going on in the academic world right now: the fight between Elsevier and the University of California.

For those not quite familiar with the sorry state of academic publishing, let me give you a brief summary:

  • New science tends to be written up into papers which are published in journals

  • Most of the famous / most reputable journals are run by profit-making corporate enterprises (Elsevier is one of the biggest)

  • Scientists are broadly publicly-funded, and part of their funding goes to these big companies

  • Because scientists, or the institutions they are employed by, have to pay a subscription fee to access the new science

  • And they also have to pay to publish their results

  • So science, which is publicly funded, is published behind a paywall

  • You have to pay to publish AND pay to read science

  • And if you want your paper to be published openly, under an open-access license, so that anyone can read, benefit from and built upon it…you have to pay an EXTRA fee to the journal companies for the privilege

(I did a TEDx talk in 2016 that touched on this if you fancy a watch 😉)

I’d argue that a lot of the core issues in academia (unequal access to knowledge, perverse incentives, university protection of problematic scientists, the list goes on) has some root in the publishing system. Academics talk openly with each other behind closed doors about these issues, but until the last few years, public condemnation has been frowned open and seen as detrimental to scientist’s careers.

Recently, though, big universities and other research institutions are finally starting to stand up to the publishers, and the #openaccess movement has been gathering steam.

That leads us to the recent fight…where Elsevier (arguably the most controversial publisher of them all) has simply removed all access to UC scientists because UC asked to be allowed to publish their science openly and not pay so much extra to the company (who really doesn’t need the money anyway). This led Elsevier to release a statement riddled with lies…which the glorious team at UC carefully and thoroughly rebutted.

It’s a juicy story worth following, as it feels like there’s a long-awaited reckoning happening within scientific publishing (in the same way other industries have been ‘disrupted’ by tech).

Other reads to get you up to speed:


📖 Book Reel 📖

As I mentioned, I’m in Rye right now finishing up the first round of edits. They aren’t too huge, more pernickety science changes that really don’t affect the narrative; balancing clarity for a general audience with rigour for a more expert audience (both of which are part of my target readership). I’ve also got to tidy up the intro. On Wednesday, I should receive the narrative edits from my editor and have 2 days set aside to weave those in…however big or small they may be. Then we’re off to the copy editor and legal team.

Beyond edit updates, I wanted to talk about money for a second, as it’s very front-of-mind for me right now. The economics of writing a book are extremely variable depending on author’s previous savings, current job and - in the case of non-fiction - what advance they get before they start writing (with fiction you write the whole book before you even get an agent).

In my case, I had little savings, I’m a freelancer so have variable work, I don’t come from wealth, and my advance wasn’t all that much - in total it was enough to cover my rent for 5.5 months, but when you take into account tax, my agent’s 15% cut, and the fact you only get a third of it before you start writing (then a third when you submit, a third when published), it absolutely did not act as payment for time off to write.

So instead, I continued to freelance between October (when I got the deal) and March, and then April-June I lived on paltry savings. Which means when I handed my book in on July 11th, my cashflow was pretty problematic. (Especially as I then learned that the second third of the advance only comes after it goes to legal, not when you first hand in, so that added another month without income, that I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with.)

Which means the last few weeks have been a mix of rejoicing from finishing the book, and frantically working with as many clients as I can fit into my schedule so my cashflow for next month is back on track (which now, thankfully, it is).

For me, this has all been 100% worth it and I’d do it all again, but the reality of the situation is that financially (both literally and mentally) writing a book is draining, especially if - like me - you decide to incorporate a few (relatively cheap) trips away, as well as time off from regular work, to focus and write. (Worth the investment for me as it meant I managed to research, plan and write a 100k word book in less than 8 months with little bursts of focus throughout, as opposed to stretching the process across 18 months amongst continued regular work.)

I wanted to share this as I realise I don’t really talk about money publicly all that much, and a few people recently have made a few assumptions about my wealth (in that they believed I was rich / came from wealth and thus was ‘able’ to ‘just’ write a book without working). This is not to put two fingers up to them, but rather to make it clear that it *is* doable if you don’t come from wealth, if you don’t have huge pots of savings, or you don’t have a high-flying job. You just have to budget better, know when you can and can’t afford to take the time off to focus on writing, and accept that any savings you might have had are likely to be entirely blown on this one project (as they are in my case).

For me, writing a book > current wealth (which is why I’m already plotting number two…) but I do have a lot of *thoughts* about how inaccessible this world is to those who have no savings, have an inflexible job, can’t call their parents for a cash injection, or whatever other financial constraints that mean they have to live paycheck to paycheck.

I wish more authors would talk about their first-book money experiences, as I think there’s so many incorrect assumptions out there, so hopefully this wee ramble is a start to bucking the taboo trend.


🧐 Musing Reel 🧐

I’ve been thinking a lot about time, emails and the feelings of obligation I have in giving my attention to almost anyone who asks for it.

I’m one of those people who feel a bit ruled by their inbox and notifications. I know it’s not healthy, I know it’s daft, but at the end of the day, I can’t help feeling anxious if I’m not in control of what messages are there, who is ‘owed’ a reply, and how many little red circles there are on my phone’s homescreen. I’ve turned off the red circles in my phone’s settings, which did help to some degree, but I know there’s a deeper shift in my mentality required if I’m not to become an email and message writer, as opposed to a book and article (and email NEWSLETTER) writer.

The wonderful Sian Meades-Williams (who writes a fab freelance writing newsletter, just FYI) sent me this cracking article which hit the nail on the head about my feelings of obligation around replying to everyone who messages me.

This bit at the end of the piece really got me:

Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, tells the young poet that he must ask himself if he would die if he was forbidden to write. Dramatic! But true. If the answer to that important question: “Must I write?” is “Yes, I must,” then do not die at the feet of others’ expectations. Do not die of emails. Live as if you do not care about being rude. Indeed, when you are actually dying, I suspect you will not care if they thought you rude, only if they thought of the things that you wrote and found in them beauty or hope or some mirror for the unsayable aspects of being human.

The title of the article is: Do You Want to Be Known For Your Writing, or For Your Swift Email Responses?

The answer, for me, is clear as day.


📌 Tip Reel 📌

Book’s I’ve read recently that I think you might like:

  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (“In a vase in a closet, a couple of years after his father died in 9/11, nine-year-old Oskar discovers a key...The key belonged to his father, he's sure of that. But which of New York's 162 million locks does it open?”)

  • Doing Justice (“A Prosecutor’s Thoughts on Crime, Punishment and the Rule of Law”)

  • Something to Live For (All Andrew wants is to be normal. He has the perfect wife and 2.4 children waiting at home for him after a long day. At least, that's what he's told people….The truth is, his life isn't exactly as people think and his little white lie is about to catch up with him.”) ((I flew through this in 2 days, it’s SUBLIME))

Books I’m reading now:

  • Tyrant: Shakespeare On Power (“How does a truly disastrous leader – a sociopath, a demagogue, a tyrant – come to power? How, and why, does a tyrant hold on to power? And what goes on in the hidden recesses of the tyrant's soul? For help in understanding our most urgent contemporary dilemmas, William Shakespeare has no peer.”)

  • Less (“Arthur Less is a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the post: it is from an ex-boyfriend of nine years who is engaged to someone else. Arthur can't say yes - it would be too awkward; he can't say no - it would look like defeat. So, he begins to accept the invitations on his desk to half-baked literary events around the world.”)

  • Frankissstein (“What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet? Jeanette Winterson shows us how much closer we are to that future than we realise. Funny and furious, bold and clear-sighted, Frankissstein is a love story about life itself.”)

Nicola Sturgeon’s TED talk about moving away from GDP is cracking.

Yve Blake’s TEDx talk about fangirls is cracking.


➡️ Next Reel ➡️


✍️ Work Reel ✍️


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Until next time,
Gemma 🚀


Gemma Milne is a Science & Tech Writer, currently writing a book about hype and idealism in science and tech, is Co-Founder of Science: Disrupt, and loves a bit of public speaking.