Novels, science, and novel science


I was chatting with a friend in a monthly book group. A rare event happened this month: everybody in the group really liked the book. It turns out that that most of the books they read are not well-liked by the group. How does that happen? Well, this is a discriminating group, and there are lot of books on the market; many books aren’t that good.

We speculated about why so many non-good books are sold by publishers. The answer is embedded within the question: those books sell.

Let me overgeneralize and claim that there are two kinds of novels: First, there are those that were brought into the world because the author had a creative vision and really wanted to write the book. Second, there are novels that are written with the purpose of selling and making money. Of course, some visionary works of art also sell well, but many bestselling books aren’t great works of art. (No venn diagram should be required.) Some amazingly great novels don’t sell well, and weren’t created to be sold easily in the marketplace.

Most novels were never intended for greatness. The authors and the publishers know this, but have designed them to be enjoyed and to have the potential to sell well. When someone is shopping for a certain kind of book, then they’ll be able to buy that kind of book. Need a zombie farce? A spy thriller? A late-20s light-hearted romance? I have no problem with people writing and selling books that aren’t great. Books can be a commodity to be manufactured and sold, just like sandwiches or clothing. A book that is designed to sell fits easily fits into a predetermined category, and then does its best to conform to the expectations the category, to deliver to the consumer what was expected.

I think a similar phenomenon happens when we do experiments and write scientific papers.

First, some research happens because the investigators are passionately interested in the science and have a deeply pressing creative urge to solve problems and learn new things.

On the other hand, some research is designed to be sold on the scientific marketplace.

To advance in our careers, we need to sell our science well. The best way to do this, arguably, is to not aspire to do great science. We can sell science by taking the well trod path on theoretical bandwagon, instead of blazing our own paths.

If you want a guarantee that your science will sell well, you need to build your research around questions and theories that are hot at a given moment. If you do a good set of experiments on trendy topic, then you should be able to position your paper well in a well-regarded journal. If you do this a dozen times, then your scientific career is well on its way.

On the other hand, you could choose a topic that you are passionately interested in. You might think that this is an important set of questions that has the potential to be groundbreaking, but you don’t know if other people will feel the same way. You might be choosing to produce research that doesn’t test a theory-of-the-moment, but you think will be of long-term use to researchers in the field for many years to come. However, these kinds of papers might not sell well to high-profile journals.

Just like a novelist attempting to write a great novel instead of one that will sell well, if you are truly attempting to do great science, there is no guarantee that your science will sell. Just like there are all kinds of would-be-great novelists, there are some would-be-great scientists who are not pursuing established theories but are going off in more unexplored directions.

Of course, some science created for the marketplace is also great science, too. But the secrets to creating science that sells, are very different than the secrets to doing great science.

After all, most papers in Science and Nature are easily forgettable, just like the paperbacks for sale at your local chain bookstore.

Update: For the record, y’all, I’m not claiming that I am above doing science to be sold. That’s mostly what I do. I’m just owning that fact. There’s more on this in the comments.

10 thoughts on “Novels, science, and novel science

  1. I see what you mean Terry, but I think you’re drawing an overly black-and-white distinction here:

    Also, can’t bad books, and bad (or at least uninteresting, unimportant) science, arise from someone’s personal, passionate interests? For instance, if your personal interests are very esoteric or specialized? Indeed, isn’t personal passion kind of infamous as a leading cause of bad writing?

    I also thought of a line from Anthony Lane that I like, and that perhaps shows the limits of the analogy here: “I believe in trash and classics. Books you can read without thinking, and books you have to read if you want to be able to think at all.” Hmm, going to think more about Lane’s point of view and whether it might apply to science. There might be a post in here somewhere…

    • Maybe I *should* have drawn that venn diagram :)

      Yes, it is overly black and white. I did say it was an overgeneralization, after all.

      • Ok, fair enough. :-) But the more I think about it, the more I think your analogy here is richer and more interesting than just a gradient from “great literature to popular rubbish” or “great science to bandwagon-jumping rubbish”. There’s a multi-dimensional space here, not a one-dimensional gradient, and it’s interesting to think about mapping literature and science into the same multi-dimensional space. Will keep thinking about this with an eye towards posting something…

        • People have lots of motives for doing science. As you say, it’s a multidimensional space, of course. One small group are those who really just want to do the science without thinking about how it will be accepted. Some of it is occupied by people who just want to publish high-profile papers and don’t care what’s in those papers. I think being pulled too heavily to either corner in this multivariate space isn’t wise.

  2. The problem is that we do not all share the same ideas about which papers in ecology are classic and which ones are trash. This post comes off a bit as:
    1. I have better scientific taste than other scientists, or
    2. my scientific intentions are more pure.
    Maybe for you both statements are true. But I think it is important to keep in mind that we are all professionals, and hopefully quite capable of making up our own minds about what is interesting/good science. Could it be that some papers are popular because a lot of us (professionals) think they are important?

    • You’ve made the presumption that I am not doing science to be sold. I’m playing the game as much as anybody else is.

      I do have some one-off experiments that I do for fun on the side, but when I do an experiment, I do it with the intention of selling the paper. My students need that, and I need it if I’m going to be able to do any research in the future.

      A little more on that topic:

      • OK, I see your point.

        I guess in my admittedly short career I have found a decent correlation between how well I am able to write down an argument that convinces me of the importance of a my work and how well I can sell its importance to others. Although maybe this is just naivete. It is entirely possible (probable) that the arguments I use to convince myself that something is important has been influenced by what I read and where I read it.
        But I wonder, what should make the research interests of one scientist in isolation better than the aggregate interests of an interacting multitude?* Why should we be better at assessing the scientific value of our own work than assessing the work of others?* How do you think science would differ today if nobody cared about selling their research to anyone but themselves?* Maybe it would be better, or maybe a lot of us would be working on rather small questions that provide personal gratification but are of little interest to other scientists or society.

        *You obviously don’t have to answer these questions, as they are just as much to myself

  3. Novelist here. Your speculation is correct. Publishers now have people called “development editors” as in product development. Genre titles are products targeting a specific market: romance, westerns, scifi, etc. That means the novel has to be formulaic and has to guarantee a minimum of 50,000 hardcover copies sold, which means the novel targets a known demographic that will see a lot of advertising. Books, like any other product, sell because of advertising.

    Publishers, in other words, invest in products they think will succeed based on past product performance, but most titles fail financially, so investment by the publisher assumes that one title will hit big once in a while and generate income to pay for the failures.

    That’s the 20th Century economic model for publishing fiction, the model with agents and editors and a thousand rejection slips. The new model gives writers full control of writing and selling books thanks to computers and, which runs a site called With good tech skills, a writer than build a Kindle and print edition of a title and sell directly to readers and therefore bypass the agents, editors, and marketing departments in Manhattan. And it works. The print editions are also environmentally friendly, because each paperback is print on demand, printed only when a copy is purchased.

    It’s a variation on self-publishing, but with the writer having full control of creative content, publishing, and selling. No ripoff vanity press to get in the way. No ripoff New York house that pile more junk titles on the discount table.

    More another time on how “great” fiction gets that way. Need to get back to work on another chapter today.

  4. I realize it’s not very relevant to the science part of the analogy, but the implication that genre fiction is inherently not great (or not about the author’s creative vision) bugs me. :P

    • I’m not sure that’s what I was saying, perhaps I miswrote. Things can be written to be marketed within a particular genre, and if that the marketing within the genre is the reason the book came to be, then it’s probably not going to be great

      However, if someone is writing within a particular genre, and is focused not so much on selling the book but writing a great one, then of course it can be great. The venn diagram shows an overlap between great books and those that are built to sell. I think if it’s designed to conform to a genre, that’s typically to make it sell, right?

      Of course some authors wrote great books and did them within a genre to make sure they would get published and sell. I guess the classic example of that is Philip K Dick.

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