Last week, I was given one of the greatest honours an author in Canada can have.  I was invited to the headquarters of Canada’s largest bookseller, Chapters/Indigo, to talk about The Germ Code and to sign the wall of fame.

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I also received some more good news regarding the book.  It seems that the demand has been so great that there may be a second printing in the works.  The news may be bittersweet; the book will continue to be promoted internationally yet this could mean more time before I begin writing my next tome.  That being said, there are so many other projects ongoing and in the works, I’ll be busy for quite some time.

In light of how busy I am, it’s no surprise to me that when I’m met in the street or subway by someone who recognizes me, I’m asked one particular question.  It’s simple enough and yet can alter the atmosphere dramatically depending on how I answer.

“Are you making a lot of money?”

I have a prepared answer:  “I’m not starving nor am I driving a Lamborghini.”

It seems to be effective enough.  Of course, it is a lame response but I feel necessary to keep the always contentious issue of writing for pay out of the spotlight. But this week, I gained another answer that might work and also highlight the nature of sciPOP. It came thanks to an incredible lecture by the incredible Erica Ehm.


For those of you who don’t know her by name, she has been a staple in Canadian media for over twenty years, particularly in music.  However, a number of years ago, she started one of the most popular blogging sites in the world:  The Yummy Mummy Club or as it’s called now, YMC (no A or eh?).

Over the years, Erica has done for motherhood what I am trying to do for science through sciPOP.  She has taken the entire world out of the shadows of domesticity and put it straight into the fast lane of the information superhighway. In the process, she has gained an entourage made up of skilled professionals who blog about everything from food, to family, to culture, and to pregnancy.  She has an incredible following and her experience has made her a regular on the stages of conferences.

At her most recent talk, Erica spoke to the topic of pay and introduced me to an analogy that I had not even given thought albeit had been right in front of my nose.

When I’m giving my talks, particularly to academic audiences, I refer to myself as a microbiologist taking a sabbatical to become a rock star.  It always goes well with the crowd.  It actually stemmed from an online conversation in which a colleague in the UK referred to me as a burgeoning rock star and I jokingly suggested that from now on he call me “Jason Bon Germy.”

Although I enjoy the comparison, the idea that I could be viewed or even perceived as an artist such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or the namesake of my alternate ego, Jon Bon Jovi, was ludicrous.  After all, I was writing, not composing.  I was getting people to read, not to sing and dance.  My heroes were Douglas Adams, Robertson Davies and Clive Barker.  The schism between the two roles wasn’t just a gap, it was an impassable chasm.

Yet Erica changed that.  She showed me that blogging is indeed creativity and each blog post is akin to composing a piece of music.  Even more importantly, the first post, no matter how brilliant, will almost never get the attention it rightly deserves.  Blogging success is a ladder that starts at the first rung and then slowly climbs upwards.  You also need a good base, whether it be a record company or in my case media organization, to ensure the rise is steady.

If you are aware of the ladder and can find a good base, you can then climb.  Using your passion, your conviction, your skill and your creativity, the rise will come.  It may take weeks, months or years but eventually you will get noticed.  Instead of playing the clubs (small websites), where only a handful of people will see you, you’ll make it to the big time (large corporate websites) where you will have thousands of people admiring your art.

This leads me back to the title of this article and my new answer to the question.  There is no doubt that we all want to get paid for what we do, whether prose, poetry or sciPOP. I’m the same way.  But in order to get to that place, we must all travel a similar path.  As with any vocation, there will have to be sacrifices and as I’ve learned, that sometimes means giving up a paycheck.

For years, I was in the public eye never making a cent.  Yet that enabled me to experiment and hone my skills.  Much like the house band in the small bar, I had the opportunity to mix it up a little and find out what works and what doesn’t.  The stakes were smaller and failures would not be as costly. Consider what would happen now if I tried a new joke or analogy in front of a giant audience made up of influential people…and it bombed.  I’d go from rock star to has-been in a heartbeat.

It’s part of the double-edged sword that is popularity.  The more you gain, the less likely you will have a chance to go outside of your expected box.  Think about how many times you’ve been to a big name concert and only want to hear the hits.  It’s no different.  Today, I have a writing style that is expected and if I don’t deliver, for whatever reasons, there will be disappointment.

So, there exists a dichotomy.  With pay comes a price; without pay comes pleasure.  The question then becomes which is more important to you?  I cannot answer that nor can I offer a direction.  But what I can say is that as sciPOP grows, it will expand and include an influx of indelible ideas to illustrate science to the public.

Admittedly, there’s little – well, no – money at the moment in sciPOP and many of my own ventures are without remuneration.  But as Erica Ehm has shown, that reality can be changed.  Today, she has a successful business, she’s developed her own brand of rock star and her bloggers are also rising the ladder.

There’s every reason to believe the same will occur for sciPOP.  It will take time and I’m sure many hundreds of thousands of words but eventually, there will be acceptance and demand.  If it all goes well, we may all have the opportunity to not only take pleasure from our work, but get paid for it as well.

As for that answer,  I’m thinking: “I may be a rock star but I’m still no Bowie.”
(that one’s for you Tim)

Would love to know your thoughts.

(this is the third post in the sciPOP series which I hope is helping to change your perspective on presenting science in the public)