A book is everything a tweet is not (but please tweet about my book)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post from Mark Vellend.



I was not at the ESA meeting this year, but a handful of advance copies of my book, The Theory of Ecological Communities, were, and Margaret Kosmala was kind enough to send me a photo of the first buyers.  I’d like to be able to play it cool and say this was just another ho-hum moment in the life of a scientist, but it wasn’t.  I stared at the photo for a good while with a huge smile on my face.  Maybe that was just because smiling is contagious and it was instinctual to smile back at the two people smiling at me through the screen.  But there was also a sense of deep gratification.  Following in the footsteps of some of my scientific heroes, my name was on the cover of a green and yellow book, the book was now born, and at least two people other than my Mom and Dad were willing to pay money for it.  Success!

Writing a book is a teeny bit like having a child, but also not like it at all.  The similarities: long gestation period, intense anticipation for its arrival, major investment in its success, worry about its uncertain future, and sometimes wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into.  The differences: I (gender: male) actually did most of the work this time getting it to parturition, books are decidedly precocial (no diapers, bottles, tantrums, lunch boxes, or swimming lessons), I’m not sure anything I do now will influence its future, and although one might say the journey was difficult at times (f*$%ing index!), it’s not even in the same universe…I’ll just stop there instead of pretending that words can do justice to the difference on this point (just received stink eye from across the room).  I guess I’m just trying to say that there’s a bit of emotion involved.

This post is the last (I think) in a short series based on thoughts that grew out of the process of writing the book.  The others (here, here, and here) focused largely on scientific issues that flowed directly out of the contents of the book.  In addition to the little story and handful of thoughts above, I figured I’d now step back from the content of the book, and share some thoughts on writing books in general.  (Pretty thin cover story for shamelessly advertising a just-released book now available from amazon.com, I know.)  Before diving into this project, I had a short-lived but intense bout of wondering why anyone would write a really long document that people need to pay for in an age when nobody reads anything they can’t download for free.  Now I can think of several reasons:

(1) The premise of my doubt isn’t actually true.  Many ecologists do value in-depth treatments of broad topics (I certainly do) and many even value the physical book they can hold in their hands.  Long live books.

(2) A contract focuses the mind.  Had I decided to just write the book as some kind of online wiki (an idea at one point), I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to invest as much as I did in making it a coherent whole.  A contract, timelines, formal guidelines, an encouraging editor, and the happy thought of holding a physical book in my hand one day almost certainly helped the book become a better scientific contribution than it otherwise would have been.

(3) Books endure for longer than papers.  I have no evidence to support that claim, but when I think of the reference sections of my own papers, I’m pretty sure the book:paper ratio increases as you go back in time.  Even if the ideas in it become obsolete, a book endures as an historical signpost, defining the state of the field at a particular point in time, in a way that papers rarely do (in my opinion).  Even if scientists have no use for my book in 50 years, I can imagine historians of ecology finding it useful from time to time, long after I’m dead and gone.  (Why anyone should care about the fate their writings after they’re dead and gone is an interesting existential question, but I’m happy enough to accept most of us just do seem to care.)

(4) A book is everything that a tweet is not.  We consume information in increasingly smaller and faster bits, and the smaller the bit, the less the author is likely to have reflected deeply on its content.  I love reading books because I can feel the intellectual depth and reflection shine through, helping advance my own understanding and appreciation of the issues to a greater extent than you’d typically get from reading a stack of papers of the same length.  None of which changes the fact that I still want you to tweet my book, without thinking about it for more than a second (go! do it now!). To make it even easier, here’s a tweet from Princeton University Press for you to re-tweet.

(5) Intellectual satisfaction.  During no time since my Ph.D. did I dive as deeply and broadly into the literature as I did when writing the book.  Thoughts swirled, ideas popped up, links were made between previously disparate things.  It’s hard to separate the writing the book itself from being on sabbatical as the source of satisfaction derived from this, but it was refreshing either way.

As a final thought, if you’re reading this wondering if you should write a book, and you can find the time to do it*, I say go for it.  I assume that the fact that you’re wondering means you already have an idea what the book would be about, which is an obvious pre-requisite.  In all likelihood, it will be gratifying and stimulating for you, and your field of study will be better for it.  If you read my book, please let me know what you think, positive or negative (but don’t be mean or nasty).  I hope it sparks some interesting conversations.


* This certainly varies between people and types of books, but I’d say you want at least a year during which you can devote a big chunk of your efforts just to this one project.

23 thoughts on “A book is everything a tweet is not (but please tweet about my book)

  1. Hi Mark; Many congrats!!…may you have a great and lasting influence on community ecology. I like your title,….. probably because its similar to mine [ The Theory of Sex Allocation].
    cheers, eric

  2. From the perspective of a would-be author, I can particularly see the value of #2. It seems invaluable to have an editor and peer reviewers who are not only encouraging, but can help identify what others will care about most (e.g., “Please expand your treatment of X, which is fascinating, and condense Y, which is dull”). I wonder whether there are any emerging models for book-length publications that are online-only, but nonetheless overseen by an editor and shaped by peer review.

    • “I wonder whether there are any emerging models for book-length publications that are online-only, but nonetheless overseen by an editor and shaped by peer review.”

      Good question. I believe there are freelance editors one can hire (?) How much they cost and whether you could find one with appropriate specialist expertise/experience for a scientific book, I have no idea.

  3. Great job Mark (just finished chp4)! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on book writing. Your key idea in the book I completely agree with, and the concept of focusing on high-level vs low-level processes in driving communities is a great way to conceptualize what you are trying to accomplish. There are some parallels with this idea and how Ethan White conceptualized the role of John Harte’s “state variables” in linking process and patterns in macroecology (https://figshare.com/articles/Evaluating_a_general_theory_of_macroecology/155707). We need to focus on high-level processes if we are searching for generality.

    Also others may be interested to know that a diverse group of folks are getting together online to form reading groups to discuss the book (feel free to join in):

    • Thanks for that link to Ethan’s presentation, Dan. And for buying the book! In Chapter 11 you’ll find a short section on Maximum Entropy theory entitled “The curious case of macroecology” (I have trouble making sense of it, or at least making a connection with my own framework). Margaret told me about the reading group (brought on a new wave of imposter syndrome), and at some point if questions arise, she might bring me in to help clarify or elaborate.

      • Thanks for your replies Mark and Jeremy! That is a cool post Jeremy thanks for sharing the link. Mark I just read that section in Chp 11. I totally understand your confusion here. I do see a useful connection between your framework and a framework like Harte’s METE which uses a small set of measured or estimated state variables (e.g., total number of species, total number of individuals, etc.) to predict a systems’s most likely state. Without going too into it here one practical conceptual connection I see is that you suggest one could connect lower level processes to your high level processes to make a quantitative prediction about a pattern. This could be an entire distribution (such as the abundance distribution). The way a “most likely” central limity kind of theory like John’s fits is in demonstrating that none of the biological details beyond how the processes of selection, speciation, dispersal, drift drive the state variables (i.e., total number of species: S, the total number of individuals: N) matter. This could help sort out while very different suites of lower level processes may result in the same SAD because they all have similar effects via selection, speciation, dispersal, and drift on S and N. The reverse is also true that the same pattern may result from very different sets of your four processes if they have similar effects on the state variables. So for example if you go to a site and you notice that the SAD has a shape change that is consistent with a decrease in S (i.e., its still a logseries distribution just a steeper one) this may be because selection was harsh or dispersal was low. Going back to Ethan’s flow chart from his talk (linked above), I would insert your four processes above the state variables as an additional level at which information in the system is aggregated. That’s one conceptual link I see.

      • Nice! Thanks for your thoughts on connecting these different theories, Dan. I can’t add much more at the moment, except to say I’ll need to think through these connections. Ideas much appreciated…

  4. I was at ESA and spent a lot of time at the Princeton booth (cough cough my own book https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/the-scientists-guide-to-writing/) and I can testify to the fervent interest in yours, Mark! In fact, during the signing for MY book, a couple of people came looking for YOURS, and left in disappointment when they learned it was sold out. Sadly, it did not occur to them to buy a copy of mine as consolation 🙂

    More broadly – I agree with everything Mark has written here, and add one more plus to writing a book. It’s really fun to have a chance to write in a longer medium that allows more of an author’s voice to come though. Actually, it’s really fun to discover that you HAVE a “voice”… So prospective book writers, go for it.

    • ” It’s really fun to have a chance to write in a longer medium that allows more of an author’s voice to come though.”

      If that’s all you want, you could just start a blog. Crazy idea, I know. 🙂

    • Thanks, Stephen. I agree with the point about allowing a voice to come through and/or be discovered. Jeremy – is your book voice going to be the same as your blog voice? Or, are there two different voices?

      • @Mark:

        ” Jeremy – is your book voice going to be the same as your blog voice?”

        Good question. I dunno. The draft chapter I’m working I right now is a different voice. Hopefully clear and eloquent enough to be non-boring, but sober and not especially distinctive.

        I’m struggling with that, and would welcome advice. I do think one’s voice needs to be matched to the subject and the forum. A book is not a blog post. If I have serious, considered thoughts and am publishing them in what’s seen as a serious venue, a jokey, snarky, or self-deprecating tone seems out of place.

        On the other hand, as Stephen says part of the point of a book is that the author’s own voice can come through. And through the blog I’ve already established a voice, albeit one that’s sobered up and become less distinctive over time. It’s possible some blog readers might be disappointed to open my book and see that it’s not written in my blogging voice.

        So I’m struggling to find the right voice. Perhaps one answer is to adopt different voices in different parts of the book. For instance, Rees Kassen’s book starts each chapter with a vignette written in a more conversational voice than the rest of the book. As another example, the final chapter of the Origin has a different voice than the rest of the book–much more confident, sweeping, and eloquent.

      • Not sure I have much advice to offer finding a voice. I didn’t do anything deliberate in that sense, but I definitely relaxed a bit relative to the conciseness and formality of a paper. So I imagine the voice is not so different than in papers I write (synthesis/review ones anyway), but with more space to be expressed. Maybe the best advice to give is just be yourself! (Or be whichever one of yourselves feels right in the context.)

  5. Pingback: Book review: The Theory of Ecological Communities by Mark Vellend | Dynamic Ecology

  6. Pingback: Revisiting Vellend 2010 – Reflections on Papers Past

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