Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.” She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read. They’re eating our lunches!
History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.
In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.
To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling. His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points: Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively. I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working. (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)
This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two. Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books.
Think about it: is David Brooks really our nation’s greatest philosopher of the virtuous and fulfilling life? Or does his publisher think that his book will sell better than an equally good or even better-written book by an obscure philosophy or religious studies professor? Brooks has some writing skills, but he’s a shallow thinker and often a muddled writer too. His greatest asset as an author is his occupation of some of the most valuable legacy newspaper real estate in the country.
So this is the part of the story that I think is missing from Zuckoff’s advice about writing a bestseller: First of all, the journalists-turned-bestsellers that I know of are writers who already have a prominent platform and a name brand. This is why a lot of U.S. Americans think Cokie Roberts is a more authoritative source for information on early American women’s history and the history of American First Ladies than Catherine Allgor or Mary Beth Norton, two professional historians who have published with trade presses and know how to tell a story.
Secondly, many of these journalist-historians aren’t doing their own research, and some may not in fact have done much of the actual writing of the books. (This is likelier the more prominent and more television exposure the journalist-historian has.) In other words, many of these bestsellers are bestsellers because publishers pour resources into the creation and marketing of these books that most professional historians can only dream of–and it’s not because we’re all poor writers who don’t know how to tell a story.
Should professional historians try to compete on this playing field? (Do we even want to? I’m sure some of you will have different answers to this question.) I’m all for writing books that people want to read. Although I give away a metric tonne of free writing on this blog, I strongly believe that if we want to publish physical books and ask people to buy them, we need to think about the quality of our writing and tell a good story. Covart and Zuckoff are absolutely right about that.
The book I’ve just completed, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) will be published as an academic-trade crossover because Yale thinks it will sell to a variety of audiences, which was one of my goals all along. It’s based on the life of Esther Wheelwright, an eighteenth-century woman who lived in three major North American cultures–born into an Anglo-American family in Massachusetts in 1696, she was taken captive by French-allied Wabanaki at the age of 7 in 1703, and then was brought over the border at age 12 and enrolled in the Ursuline convent school in Québec.
Esther declared her interest in becoming a Choir nun at the age of 14 and lived the rest of her life in the monastery, becoming the only foreign-born Mother Superior in the order’s nearly 400 year history. Quite significantly, she was elected in 1760, the year after the British conquest of Québec, and provided strong leadership in a time when French Canadians didn’t know if they would be permitted to remain in their own colony or permitted to practice their religion.
My book is a radical experiment that only a professional historian would attempt–can we recenter early American history not just on women’s history, but on the experiences of a little girl and a woman who forgets how to speak English by age 10? How much farther from the so-called “Founding Fathers” can we get? The books written by journalist-historians in my field, by contrast, tend to be just-so tales about the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in eighteenth-century Anglo-America.
Instead of looking for an exciting story that had lots of sources to help me tell it, I took the more difficult path, one perhaps only open to professional historians, to tell an exciting story in the absence of a rich archive. But what I bring to this project that no journalist has is twenty-plus years of researching and thinking about early North American history–Anglo-American history, Native American history, French Canadian history, and women’s history.
Most exciting for me, I got an advance for this book that is a real commitment from the press to market my book aggressively, as it will need to make that money back on book sales. I didn’t know some university presses could or did offer advances like the one I got. (It won’t buy me a semester of leave from my job, but it could buy me a nice car, or take the family on a very nice extended European vacation, which is probably how I’ll spend at least part of the dough next summer.) After years of laboring in obscurity and waking up at 4 a.m. to write while working my day-job, that was a very nice surprise.
But enough about me–I and my book are just one example of how professional historians are trying to take the best of our training and also think seriously about writing for an audience beyond our colleagues and graduate seminars. I’d like to hear from the rest of you about what you make of all of this–bestsellers versus academic writing; journalist-historians versus professional historians; and commercial trade presses versus university presses. How do you see the rest of your writing life unfolding, at least in the next five or ten years?