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

James Cortada jcortada at umn.edu
Wed Oct 8 14:56:04 PDT 2014

I think Tom is really quite right--and thoughtful.  I have written a number
of business management books published by trade houses, such as by
McGraw-Hill and learned that for such books I needed a different writing
style than for the books I did with Oxford or Princeton, for example.  They
needed less discussion about theories or what others wrote, more
declarative sentences, absolute statements, and shorter story lines.  I
have such a book coming out at the end of the year from Wiley that I think
is thoughtful and certainly based on a lot of work that is not exposed in
the book because I really needed to deliver my messages in less than 250
big text pages.  On the other hand, those kinds of  books routinely sell
between 3,000 and 10,000 copies, never get reviewed in academic journals,
but did pay for my children's college education.

Well done Tom.  I liked your blunt, honest analysis.  Just for the record,
however, I value academic books a lot more than most trade books on
history, economics, or politics.

On Wed, Oct 8, 2014 at 4:39 PM, Thomas Haigh <thaigh at computer.org> wrote:

> 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
> histories.
> 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,
> Tom
> -----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'.
> Bill
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James W. Cortada
Senior Research Fellow
Charles Babbage Institute
University of Minnesota
jcortada at umn.edu
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