James D. Livingston’s professional career was in physics, first at GE and later at MIT, and most of his writings in the 20th century were in physics, including one popular-science book (Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets, Harvard, 1996). As he gradually moved into retirement in the 21st century, he began to broaden his writing topics into American history, a long-time interest of his. His latest book in this genre is Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York. This and his earlier books are described on his Author’s Guild website, www.jamesdlivingston.net.
Q: Welcome to Beyond the Books, Jim. Can you start out by telling us whether you are published for the first time or are you multi-published?
First, thanks to you for hosting me in this interview. I’ve had three other books published before the latest one, two in science and one in history.
Q: What was the name of your very first book regardless of whether it was published or not and, if not published, why?
My first published book was Driving Force: The Natural Magic of Magnets (Harvard, 1996), a popular-science book.
Q: For your first published book, how many rejections did you go through before you either found a mainstream publisher, self-published it, or paid a vanity press to publish it?
I first tried commercial presses, and received over a dozen rejections. But as soon as I decided to try university presses, Harvard expressed interest immediately, and I had a contract within a couple of weeks.
Q: How did the rejections make you feel and what did you do to overcome the blows?
Each rejection was certainly a downer, but I persevered, reminding myself that many famous books first received many rejections. And all the rejections make you feel even better when you do finally land a contract. You realize you’ve really accomplished something.
Harvard University Press published it. Once I decided to approach university presses, Harvard was my first choice, partly because I have a degree from Harvard and partly because they are in Cambridge and I was working in Cambridge at MIT. It was easy to meet with the editor, and I got a couple of free lunches that way! And the name Harvard on the book cover seems to carry some weight.
Q: How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?
It felt great, and my wife and I celebrated with a bottle of champagne. But I have to confess that we used to drink champagne once a week whether or not we had anything to celebrate.
Q: What was the first thing you did as for as promotion when you were published for the first time?
The book was a popular science book about magnets. I had previously helped a company that made refrigerator magnets, and they provided me with a few hundred fridge magnets carrying the cover of my book. I used those for direct mail to many people and many companies in the magnet business. Back in 1996, I concentrated on targeted direct mail and traditional media, but today it is equally if not more important to do web marketing. This on-line interview with you today is part of my web marketing for my latest book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder.
Q: If you had to do it over again, would you have chosen another route to be published?
No, that route eventually worked well. Driving Force ended up with about 30 reviews, including one in The New York Times that probably sold the most books. The book sold very well by university press standards, and now, 14 years later, is still selling a few hundred copies a year.
Q: Have you been published since then and how have you grown as an author?
Since Driving Force, I’ve published an undergraduate textbook and two books in history. My professional career was in physics, and for the first 40 years, I published a lot in science, writing mostly for other scientists. Driving Force was the first where I aimed for a general audience. That was good practice for my two history books, A Very Dangerous Woman (2004, with my wife as co-author) and my latest book, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York (2010). They’re both aimed at a general audience. So I’ve grown in the breadth of the topics of my books, and in the size of the audience I’m writing for.
Q: Looking back since the early days when you were trying to get published, what do you think you could have done differently to speed things up? What kind of mistakes could you have avoided?
Fortunately, I never depended on my writing for the bulk of my income. So, I didn’t have to feel myself a failure if my books didn’t reach the bestseller lists and earn lots of money. I might have done better if I had hired a PR firm, but didn’t want to spend the money.
Q: What has been the biggest accomplishment you have achieved since becoming published?
I considered each of my books a major accomplishment at the time, but I am currently proudest of my latest, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York. It centers on a sensational murder trial of the 1890s, but also provides a window into the fascinating wider world of Gilded Age New York. It’s a great story in a great setting.
Q: If you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?
My professional career was in science, over 30 years in research with GE and about 20 years of teaching at MIT. Writing was an important part of both those jobs, but it is only in full retirement that my major activity has been writing. It’s fortunate that I now have pensions from both GE and MIT, and don’t have to rely on the royalties from book sales to survive. I couldn’t live on my book royalties, but they help cover my gas money.
Q: Would you give up being an author for that profession or have you combined the best of both worlds?
During my science career, I was an author of over 150 articles in scientific journals, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries, plus two books. So I was both an author and a scientist. Communication is important in all professions, including science. Now that I have retired from full-time science, I can focus more on writing, some in science and some in history, my two major interests.
Q: How do you see yourself in ten years?
I just turned 80, and life-expectancy statistics suggest that I probably won’t be here ten years from now. If I am, I probably won’t still be writing books. But I may still be busy trying to market the great book I published when I was 80, Arsenic and Clam Chowder.
Q: Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?
Until you are lucky and strike it rich with a blockbuster best seller, you should have another career that can provide you with sufficient income to allow you to have fun writing on the side. And be sure to enjoy what you do.