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Anne Wallingford, WordSmith

People to Meet

An Interview with Dr. David Badger, Natural History Author


Name: David Badger
Degrees: A.B. degree, English literature, Duke University (1971)
M.S.J., editorial journalism, Northwestern University (1972)
Ph.D., communication, University of Tennessee (1987)

Professional Background:
Professor of Journalism, Middle Tennessee State University
.........Frogs, text by David Badger, photography by John Netherton
.........Snakes, text by David Badger, photography by John Netherton
.........Newscraft, co-authored with Larry Burriss
Book editor for nature photographer John Netherton
(former) Book critic & book columnist, Nashville Tennessean
(former) Film critic, WPLN-FM Nashville Public Radio

Interview Questions and Answers
Establishing Credentials

Q: David, you're a university professor as well as a freelance writer. I first "met" you while reviewing books for a catalog project and I fell in love with your nature book, Frogs, which was a collaboration between you and nature photographer John Netherton. How did the two of you come together?
Dr. Badger: I have taught university journalism courses for 27 years, and was film critic for Nashville Public Radio and book critic & book columnist for the Nashville Tennessean—but a long-standing friendship with Nashville nature photographer John Netherton led to my entry into the field of natural-history book writing.

John and I met after I encountered a photograph he had taken of a green snake that was published in a Nashville newspaper's Sunday magazine. I asked a student of mine whether she was related to this "Netherton" fellow—and it turned out she was his wife. I contacted John, ordered an enlargement of that photograph to frame and hang on my wall…and we went on to become very close personal friends.

Writing Natural History Books

Q: David, you've had a lifelong attraction to snakes, haven't you? Is this why you and John did a book about snakes?
Dr. Badger: I agreed to write a companion volume about snakes after the publisher (Voyageur Press) asked us to collaborate on such a book for them. Initially, John was more agreeable than I—I believed there was a glut of snake books at the time, whereas there had been no books like our coffee-table Frogs book when we were working on it—but ultimately John proved highly persuasive.

I actually had some background knowledge about snakes, since I had found a green snake as a 4th-grader and later ordered several as pets from a snake farm in Louisiana. I also had participated in a science-fair project about venomous snakes, and had served as a nature counselor for five summers in Wisconsin, where snakes were among the many live specimens we kept and maintained at the nature lodge. My interest in snakes included a modest collection of books about snakes, which served as a springboard for my research.

Q: So your first book was about frogs?
Dr. Badger: After I finished editing a book about North American wading birds by John Netherton (in the early '90s), the publisher asked John what he would like to do next. John said he'd like to do a book about frogs. When he approached me, however, he invited me to WRITE this book myself, rather than just edit the text for him. I studied some of John's photographs of frogs very carefully, grew excited about the project, and agreed.

Next, however, John had to persuade Voyageur Press. So I wrote a sample chapter for the book and they were pleased to include me in the project as author. As I had no background whatsoever in frogs at that time, I had to engage in many months of extensive research before actually embarking on the writing of the text.

Advice for New Nonfiction Authors

Q: Having a publisher lined-up for your books was crucial to your projects. You were fortunate in that John Netherton was already working with Voyageur Press. Is there any advice you can share with nonfiction authors who are looking for a publisher?
Dr. Badger: Study the market. Use Writer's Market as a source guide. Read widely. Visit bookstores regularly. Write and read book reviews. Collaborate with an established author/photographer (as I did). My 24-year friendship with John Netherton was responsible for our collaboration on nature books. Great photographs grab a reader's eye much more quickly than the prose. Excellent photographs give a book a compelling reason to exist.

Q: Will your books generate substantial income?
Dr. Badger: Income is a pitfall. I support myself as a journalism professor. If I had to rely only on income (split, naturally, with John Netherton) from my books, I would starve. Every would-be book author should first secure a full-time job with adequate insurance benefits. THEN proceed—in your spare time—to pursue freelance writing projects (articles and books). Book royalties are far too small and infrequent.

Happily, I never had to abandon my university teaching career to write natural history books. During my first 20 or so years of teaching, I was a film critic and a book critic/columnist, while also engaging in academic research for publication in scholarly journals on the side. I eventually had to give up my (nonpaying) film critic's job, and later my (paying) job as a book columnist, to devote the necessary time to researching, writing and editing Frogs and then Snakes. Ultimately, I decided I would rather reach a large audience of readers of all ages (book buyers and library users) than write dry academic articles for a very limited readership.

Q: What else should new nonfiction authors be aware of?
Dr. Badger: Contracts. Each time you write a book, you learn to read the contract more carefully. For our first book with Voyageur Press, we accepted all the standard publishing stipulations; by the time we signed a contract for our second book, however, we knew enough to look closely for problem areas (e.g., who would provide species range maps, etc.), and, by mutual consent, we crossed out terms that we were unwilling to adhere to.

Marketing Nonfiction Books

Q: How are your books being marketed, David?
Dr. Badger: Marketing is handled entirely by the publishing house. Our experience working with Voyageur Press on Frogs was a happy one—they supported the Frogs project to the hilt, even printing up full-color flyers and bookmarks.

Our experiences promoting the book via book signings were somewhat less edifying, however, as local bookstores rarely purchased ads, and we had to rely on our own contacts and on free publicity to alert the public to book-signing engagements.

Frogs appeared in Voyageur's fall catalog (and was featured on the cover); a promotional bookmark was created; a two-sided color flyer was printed up; and review copies were sent to many newspapers and magazines. John and I did book signings at several Nashville bookstores, as well as in Knoxville, Memphis, and Murfreesboro. And the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga hosted a wine-and-cheese book-signing party for us, for which John showed slides from the book and I gave an address. We also appeared on several Nashville radio and local TV shows, and we were interviewed by several newspapers. (Having contacts can prove invaluable here!)

And although we had considerably more input regarding the selection of photographs for Snakes than we did for Frogs, in the end the marketing department substituted a different cover.

Writing Experiences

Q: What positive experiences did you have while working on these two books?
Dr. Badger: The best part of working on Frogs and, later, Snakes, was the opportunity to learn about subjects I knew almost nothing about. In addition to pursuing such fascinating topics as frog behavior (particularly frog vocalizations) and physical characteristics (including coloration and skin poisons), I learned a great deal about declining amphibian populations around the globe—and made sure that a separate chapter was devoted to this subject.

My interest in the environmental threat to amphibians carried over to our book about snakes. I found that certain snake species are threatened as well (although articles about their plight almost NEVER receive widespread attention, unlike the multiplicity of popular-press articles about frogs).

Q: A topic that is seldom discussed by authors, but one that is very critical to both fiction and nonfiction writing, is research. How did you handle this aspect of your work?
Dr. Badger: One of the difficulties writing Frogs was finding sufficient material about certain species (in some cases, very little herpetological resource material was available about foreign and other unusual species). Another problem was dealing with dry scientific journals and trying to ferret out interesting information and "translate" it into language that the average reader (who is neither a scientist nor a herpetologist) could make sense out of.

Snakes, on the other hand, presented a different problem: so much has already been written about North American and international species of snakes that considerably more time was required for me to accumulate sources, read them, photocopy relevant pages, underline material, create a master outline, and type up notes—all PRIOR to writing the first word of text.

Although we covered more individual species in the Frogs book, the first draft of the Snakes book turned out to be FAR longer than what the publisher wanted. So I had to go back and cut 16,000 words of text even BEFORE a freelance copy editor set to work editing my text.

The amazing things I learned about frogs and snakes are far too numerous to recount here. This, of course, would also explain why the first book was more than 10,000 words longer than the contract specified…and why Snakes was so long it had to be cut considerably.

However, I would like to note such things as frogs' multiplicity of bright colors (especially among dart-poison frogs); their amazing calls (every frog species has a different and unique call); their alluring eyes (again, a wide array of colors, with pupils that may be horizontal or vertical or even diamond-shaped); their unusual skins (which all frogs shed periodically); their teeth (who knew frogs had teeth!); the suction pads on the toes of tree frogs; their mating rituals (females initiate physical contact); their medical possibilities (skin secretions may play an important role in cures for diseases); and their disappearance in alarming numbers in all corners of the world.

Scientists now believe frogs may be "bio-indicators"—that is, they may be sentinel species whose extreme sensitivity to pollution and other forms of environmental degradation is signaled early by their disappearance or die-offs. Man should take notice, as these environmental threats to amphibians, found in water, on land, and in the air, may take a heavy toll on humans one day as well.

Unlike the more "charismatic" frogs, however, snakes are very low on anyone's list of animals deserving greater study and protection. And yet that's one reason we were attracted to writing about snakes, since snake conservation rates so low as a national and international priority. Yet, surprisingly enough, many snake venoms offer extraordinary promise in treating human diseases (heart disease, cancer, hypertension, nerve disorders, epilepsy, leukemia, etc.), and the widespread killing of snakes threatens to interfere with a very important new area of medical research.

Future Plans

Q: With these two books published, David, what's next for you and John?
Dr. Badger: Since I began to write a new book about ferogs for Voyageur's WorldLife Library series (to be published in 2000) while I was engaged in the final editing of Snakes, the new Frogs will certainly require some editorial rewriting as well as the inevitable book promotion.

But my next goal is to recover my sanity and attempt to catch up on my rest. Working on a book—while teaching full-time—and writing text EVERY DAY for many, many months straight proved far more exhausting than I had anticipated.

John's goal is to complete two books he has begun, one with former U.S. Senator Howard Baker and one with current U.S. Senator Bill Frist. John and I may collaborate again—but, for the time being, he must meet other deadlines…and the pair of us still need to promote Snakes locally after it appears in bookstores in July 1999.

To read David's introduction to John Netherton, excerpted from Frogs, click here

To read about John Netherton and his photography, excerpted from Snakes, click here

To contact David Badger, go to LinkEd, David Badger, Professor, Middle Tennessee State University

To send a private message to Anne Wallingford, click HERE

© 1999 Anne Wallingford

041403 Monday, June 07, 2010