[SIGCIS-Members] Why don't real historians write popular works?

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Wed Oct 8 14:39:20 PDT 2014

Hmm. Good question Bill. Here are some possible answers to the question "Why
don't real historians write popular works?"

1) Most academic history books are written for tenure and promotion, not
because anyone wants to read them. A peer reviewed book with a leading
university press counts for a  lot; a book with a trade press counts for
less. So the incentives are not there. Also we spend too much time
acknowledging uncertainty, citing and discussing previous work, etc. Not
doing those things would make the book look unserious to hiring, tenure, or
promotion committees.
2) The worlds of journalism and authorship have imploded. A lot of highly
qualified writers are trying to earn a living writing non-fiction. A trade
press will look for a track record with popular books or at least writing
mass market journalism for magazines. Historians don't usually have that.
3) It's higher risk. Academic press books aren't expected to sell in
significant numbers are aren't marketed much. Most would-be popular books
fail and are quickly remaindered. So an academic press book has a longer
life and the sales bar is so low it's hard to really fail. If journalists
could earn a living wage while taking 10 years to write a book that sells
700 copies a lot of them probably would.
4) It's too hard. We don't have the narrative skills or snappiness that good
journalists have honed over decades. Also it takes a huge amount of
tweeting, blogging, and self-promotion that we're not good at and don't have
the stomach for. You think we spend all that time in the archives because we
like talking to people?
5) We mostly pick topics that are inherently difficult to sell to a mass
audience. Journalists would avoid those topics.
6) We take perspectives and craft narratives that don't fit the genre norms
of popular history. Stories about "A, the B that Changed the World," "C, the
Lone Genius Who Invented D," etc. are proven to work. So are stories focused
on personalities, and bold claims about how one particular historical event
or person created the world we live in. Perspectives that scholarly
historians learn to disdain as whiggish or presentist are common in popular

So basically a popular history isn't an academic history that sells more
books. It's a different genre, written to different rules and published by a
different kind of press. Academic presses do have the occasional breakout
hit, but mostly with topics of interest to an interdisciplinary academic
audience (e.g. cultural theory), very broad interest (e.g. presidents &
founding fathers) or an enthusiast community (e.g. civil war books).

Best wishes,


-----Original Message-----
From: members-bounces at sigcis.org [mailto:members-bounces at sigcis.org] On
Behalf Of McMillan, William W
Sent: Wednesday, October 08, 2014 12:21 PM
To: members
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] Why don't real historians write popular works?

I know in some cases popular history and biography are produced by real
historians, but the lively discussion on this list about the failings of
popular writers in the history of computing gives me the impression that the
field of battle has been left to the pithy and the superficial.  Is this
community sniping from the hilltops, hoping that the writers down on the
mass-market battlefield will march up with a white flag, an acknowledgment,
and a pledge to respect real scholarship?

If real historians charged down the hill with a barrage of their own popular
histories, wouldn't that overwhelm the errant?

Just askin'.


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