Tips from an Author: Writing a Book That Isn’t Traditionally Academic

Cliff Spiro is the author of From Bench to Boardroom: The R&D Leader’s Guide. After 15 years at GE’s Corporate Research lab as a scientist and manager, he went on to lead R&D groups in silicone rubber, halogen lamps, water, paper, energy chemicals, and semiconductor processes. We asked him a few questions about his experience writing a book for Springer Nature that falls outside of the traditional academic framework.

By: Cliff Spiro

1. What was the process like for writing your book, From Bench to Boardroom? Did you pitch the idea first or already have a manuscript written?

Several years ago at an international conference, Springer editor Sara Kate Heukerott pitched the idea of a practical guide for R&D leaders to me and my good friend Bill Banholzer, Dow Chemical’s CTO, and both of us were just too busy to consider writing a book. We noodled over possible topics, but it never went any further. Then, in February of 2017, I threw my back out playing tennis, and had to rest. I used the down-time to start writing, and basically wrote the book cover-to-cover in two weeks. Because I had lived the life of an R&D manager my whole career, the flow came quite naturally. I actually felt like my hands were on a OUIJA board, and were typing on their own. If it wasn’t for writer’s cramp, I might have written it straight through in three days. After I finished, I asked Bill to write a forward, which was excellent, and completed the package.

2. How is your book different or similar to a more traditional academic piece? 

I have read a number of excellent books on innovation, generally written by academics. And while these are great, none of the authors has actually ever led a new product development, hired and fired personnel, done a budget and financial analysis, sold the concepts internally and to customers, put together projects, staffing, and materiel, or brought something through production, scale-up, commercialization, and to the market. Theory and strategies are great, but the practical aspects are also important, even daunting at times, and I wanted to share my school-of-hard-knocks perspective with the folks who are on the true front lines of innovation.

I can tell you that the book has resonated well with the people in industrial R&D who have read it. Especially from experienced R&D leaders, I have often heard things like, “Where was this book 25 years ago when I was starting out?” That is really gratifying, and even for experienced leaders in the later stages of their careers, there are several nuggets that they can use, such as ‘the five questions’ to keep a project on schedule, ‘metrics for R&D’, and how to handle the trench fights for resources with business leaders who are only thinking short-term.

3. What do you feel makes a scientific publisher like Springer Nature a fitting publisher for your work?

Springer has been great. The popular Copernicus series is meant to be exactly that- not a dumbed-down version of science and technology, but one which is accessible to a broader audience. This is a terrific and unique niche for Springer and I certainly hope it brings enough readership to allow you to continue it.

4. What was the editing process like for you?

Sara Kate Heukerott was the editor, and she was so professional and thoughtful. She read all the materials in detail and had a number of substantive suggestions, in addition to catching several grammatical and syntactical errors. If she was confused, surely the readers would be as well. I was amazed at how quickly she turned the documents around, often sending several edited chapters with commentary and recommendations just a day or two after receiving them.

5. What techniques have worked best for promoting your book?

My part of the book’s promotion has been word-of-mouth to colleagues, though Springer has been actively using electronic media for promotional purposes.

6. What tips or advice do you have for scientists and researchers who have an idea for a book that sits outside the traditional academic publishing framework?

First, write it for your audience. Decide who your readers are, and ask yourself, ‘what do they need to know to know to become more successful?’ Writing the first sentence is always the hardest, so just force yourself to start. Don’t worry too much about grammar, spelling, and editing; get that at the second draft. Write about what you know, believe, and care about. Write like you are talking to a friend. People who have read my books tell me they can hear my voice while reading; this is great! Read your book out loud see if it sounds like something you would actually say in conversation; if not, rewrite it.

7. Any final thoughts about writing a book like, “From Bench to Boardroom?”

In general, writing is one of the most important things that distinguishes humans from animals and allows knowledge to build and propagate. Books allow us to explore complex situations in depth and to broadly share our thoughts. Of course I like articles and podcasts, but a dedicated text affords you the opportunity to make a thorough and non-superficial analysis of your topic. Yes you will likely encounter criticism, but you will also know that, in some small or large way, you have touched others and left your mark on posterity. Writing and publishing books will benefit you intrinsically, will give you a sense of accomplishment, and will be good for your career and reputation as you will often be sought out as an expert in your field.

>> Learn more about From Bench to Boardroom: The R&D Leader’s Guide and read a free preview here.

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