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Writing History for a Popular Audience: A Round Table Discussion

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a stylized illustration of people joining together to form words "Writing History for a Popular Audience"This post originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of The American Historian.

Most historians would love for their work to reach a wide, non-academic audience. But how does one break into the world of “popular” history and publish a successful book with a trade press? The American Historian invited three participants—a tenured professor, an editor, and an author—to discuss their experiences with writing books geared more towards a popular audience and how to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of trade presses.

T.J. Stiles is the author of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, which received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History; The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction; and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, winner of the 2003 Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship. A 2011 Guggenheim fellow, he is a member of the Society of American Historians.

Andrew Miller is a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, where he acquires and edits history and narrative nonfiction. Among the authors he edits are Allen Guelzo, Gary Bass, Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, Stephen Platt, and Bruce Hoffman.

Danielle McGuire is an award winning author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance and Associate Professor at Wayne Statue University in Detroit.

1) How should one approach publishing a book for a popular audience?

McGuire: The key, I believe, is to focus on the story. The goal is to make the past come to life and to make ordinary people care about the history you’ve devoted your life to. It is not to demonstrate your knowledge of historiography or historical debates. Prose should be clear and concise without any academic jargon. There should be a discernable through line and characters should be developed and fully fleshed out so readers have a stake in the tale and want to keep reading. Take stylistic cues from authors of award-winning narrative nonfiction and fiction.

Stiles: The first thing to remember is that academic and trade publishing operate in different economies. (I prefer the industry term “trade” to “popular” because the latter term can suggest a lack of seriousness, which is not necessarily the case at all.) The rewards of publishing an academic book largely consist of the respect of one’s peers, not monetary income from book sales; that prestige, of course, is the currency that pays for career advancement. It’s a good system for developing the discipline, but it also leads to a relatively closed conversation among the cognoscenti.

Trade publishing exists in the commercial economy. Here, you try to expand your audience, rather than more deeply penetrate a closed market, as in academic publishing. You do that not by dumbing down, but by maximizing the reading experience. The ultimate goal of the trade book is not to advance the state of the field, though it certainly may do that, but to succeed as a book—as an organically complete and satisfying work. In trade books, the emphasis is on reading pleasure. That can come from many sources—not only storytelling, but also provocative new research and arguments. You can still engage in debates with important scholars and situate your work within current historiography, but unless it serves the experience of the reader, relegate all that to the notes.

General readers prefer narrative, but argument and thematic explorations can succeed in trade books as well if you provide a sense of forward movement, an anticipation that you are going someplace. Give the reader a reason to go on to the next page. Focus on individual humans when writing about humanity. Specific examples are good; real characters, who live and breathe and make decisions and face consequences, are better. Most of all, I recommend that you write a book you would read for pleasure. If you do not belong to your own potential audience, you’ll be faking it, and it will lead to an unsuccessful book.

Miller: I think it might be helpful to break this answer down into two stages. The first is the acquisition or commissioning stage. As a trade publisher, we have to weigh a project’s literary and historiographical merit as well as its commercial prospects. There’s no formula here, more like sliding scales, in which the ideal is a work of serious scholarship and quality that also seems likely to be a bestseller. But we also take on some books that we know will be difficult to sell if we are sufficiently passionate about them.

When we think about commercial prospects, we tend to think about both publicity and sales, which are two different things. There are certain books one expects to get quite a bit of review attention, but still seem unlikely to be bought by a large readership.

So how do we figure out what people will want to read? A significant part of this is to rely upon comparable books (or comps). These can be books on a similar subject or books that have a similar approach to a completely different subject. But an editor’s hunches also have a strong component in deciding what to publish; sometimes we’re just convinced that a book needs to be published. We still look at comps, to estimate sales and figure out the advance to be paid, but we might weigh them less in this case.

The comps also come in handy at the second stage, which is the actual publication. Comps provide some guiding light for our sales and publicity teams to convince booksellers, radio producers, and book review editors of the viability of our projects. They also provide a kind of shorthand for all these people—a way to grasp something fundamental about the book and place it in some kind of context—which is essential given the tens of thousands of books that come out every year.

But comps will only get you so far, and you still need to set your own book apart and make a case for its merits. So much of what we do is to try to distill the key arguments or themes or strengths of a book, and then articulate why they’ll be of interest to readers. Our sales and publicity teams then take our arguments and translate them for the same people I mentioned above. Some of this is just useful background information (say, the annual dollars given to charity for a book on philanthropy), but much of it attempts to capture a book’s relevance and appeal.

2) What do authors who publish with a popular press have to know about the process? How is it different than publishing with an academic press?

McGuire: I think you need to be able to clearly explain why your book matters, who your audience is, and why you think it will sell. For popular presses, the bottom line is always going to be about sales. Why your book? Why now? What will its impact be?

Access to popular presses, unlike an academic press, is often through an agent. She/he is the gatekeeper and can help ferry your proposal or manuscript through the publishing process. An agent will also help you negotiate the terms of your publishing contract, may be able to get you an advance and will champion you and your book throughout the entire publishing process and long afterwards.

Popular presses will not send out your manuscript to academic reviewers. Your editor will be the main reader and the person who you’ll need to please.

Both academic and popular presses will work with you on a marketing strategy. Popular presses have a larger budget and will have greater access to national outlets (television, radio, print media, online sources). However, authors who chose either popular or academic presses will have to do a lot of the marketing themselves and should be prepared to create a social media presence if they do not already have one.

Stiles: First, you must have an agent. For trade publishers, agents provide an initial layer of quality control and professionalize the submission process; for authors, agents get more money and better terms. Second, get a sense of the trade marketplace—the failings or absence of other books on your topic. Third, trade contracts for nonfiction are usually issued based on book proposals accompanied by sample chapters, not complete manuscripts. Your agent will help you shape your proposal. Again, do not dumb down your approach. Trade publishers like intelligent books, too. Show that you can keep the reader engaged. But don’t oversell. Don’t reach for comparisons with some mega-bestseller.

Unlike an academic press, a commercial house will not subject your proposal or manuscript to peer review. That’s up to you. Marketing is far more important than it is for an academic press. Your editor may push for a different title than the one you come up with; you may be surprised by the cover design. Have a reason other than personal attachment if you object. You know your book best; they know the trade market. A collaborative spirit will save you much aggravation. The level of marketing support can vary widely. Publishing helps authors who help themselves.

Miller: I can’t speak with any real knowledge about the academic side of the business, but I do know one key difference is that we don’t have peer review. I think most of our authors have knowledgeable readers look at their work to make sure there aren’t errors, but within the publishing house, a manuscript is first read by an editor, and then it goes through a copyediting and proofreading process.

Nearly all the time in trade publishing, the editor working on the manuscript is the same editor who signed up the book. Our financial investment becomes an emotional investment as we become the in-house point person and the primary advocate for the book.

The editing is always a response to the individual manuscript and can go any number of different ways. I always read a manuscript through before making any edits. The first responses tend to focus on bigger-picture issues such as pacing, chapter structure, and so on, to make sure the book will keep a reader’s interest above all else. From there it’s a process of narrowing the focus to catch mistakes, ask for more detail, cut extraneous detail, tighten the writing, and improve paragraph transitions. Sometimes this is just one draft and sometimes it’s six or seven, but I’d say the average is probably two or three drafts. My sense is that trade editors work on fewer books each year, and our editorial process (the one before copyediting) is more intensive than at university presses, but I could be wrong.

Once the manuscript is done, the process of publishing begins. A number of academic presses have trade divisions and I suspect their publishing process is not unlike ours; the goal, as mentioned earlier, is to figure out how to talk about the book in ways that catch the eye of the media in the hopes that they’ll cover the book. We do some advertising but there are always questions about how cost-effective it is, and a fair amount of our effort is spent on publicity and social media marketing.

3) From your own personal experience, what are the major differences between popular and academic presses? Why do you think there’s separation between the two?

Miller: The first and most obvious distinction is the types of books we publish. There’s certainly overlap—for many of us the ideal author is a professor with deep expertise but also an ability to write for general readers—but university presses publish many books that are just too specialized to work for us.

In terms of process, we don’t have peer review but I think we probably do more editing, as mentioned above. And I think our publicity teams probably have stronger connections to mainstream media outlets.

The separation has to exist because of the fundamental difference between publishing as a scholarly contribution and a commercial proposition. There are certainly overlaps—both types of publishers have to deal with costs, and trade publishers do publish books that offer real scholarship—but I suspect the overlaps are much smaller than the differences.

Stiles: Academic presses are designed to meet the needs of scholarly disciplines, so they are oriented toward the closed academic-book marketplace of libraries and course adoption. They belong to the prestige economy of the academy and benefit from the scholarly standing of their authors, just as universities do with their faculty. Their editors are often specialists. They go to conferences. They subject manuscripts to peer review. Structured into their business model (see my comments below) is the fact that academic authors don’t write for money (and sometimes live in fear that they won’t be published at all).

By contrast, a trade press operates in an open marketplace, competing for both authors and readers. Commercial houses expect your agent to demand more money and better terms. They will actually pay you an advance. When the book is published, they want to maximize sales, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they are crass about it. I worked for a decade in publishing, in both an academic house and a commercial one (Oxford University Press and Ballantine Books), and found that people in trade publishing emphatically love books. But their priority is publishing good books, not advancing the discipline. If you write an important book, in terms of scholarship, that is also engaging, they’ll be delighted; if you write an important book that is encased in jargon and historiographical nitpicking, expect a lack of enthusiasm.

4) What are the advantages of publishing with a popular press? Are there any disadvantages?

McGuire: In my opinion, the purpose of writing history is to breathe life into the dead past; to make people care about it and to put it to use in the present. Popular presses generally have access to a much larger audience than your average university press and can help your work get noticed. I also think popular presses tend to focus more on narrative prose since the audience for your book is ordinary people and not exacting academics. But that is not true for every academic press. And there are good arguments to be made for writing to and for an academic audience.

Miller: The advantages stem from the above: editing and publicity aimed at enabling an author to be read by wider audiences, without sacrificing course adoptions. The advances can be higher too.

But there are certain books that might be better off at university presses, even if a trade publisher offers. On our lists, a book that’s more scholarly is going to be competing for resources with books that are more likely to make money, but at an academic press that same book might be the lead title. Every situation is unique and there’s no formula, so it’s hard to be more categorical than that.

Stiles: There are three advantages. First, the money and terms are better. And, with a decent agent, you can better protect your rights to your work. Second, you stand a better chance of being heard in a broad public discussion of history and its relevance. This is because your book will get more attention from the media and because a trade press is capable of far greater distribution. Third, you gain a particular kind of freedom. With an academic press, you must meet the demands of your scholarly audience. There’s a kind of freedom in that, since you can take up narrow topics of limited public appeal, but you must respond to the state of the field and write in a style that indicates you are speaking to your professional peers. A general audience does not care about professional discourse. That frees you to write about subjects with little scholarly currency and to abandon academic conventions for a more literary style. You can still add to our knowledge, but you might have more fun with it. What you are not free to do is to bore the reader. A trade book belongs to the literary sphere, and is a little more likely to achieve broader cultural significance.

5) From your experience, how do tenure committees view publishing for popular audiences?

McGuire: I received tenure without complication. But I have also gotten the cold shoulder from some frosty academics who believe publishing your first book with a popular press is not sufficiently rigorous or academic enough. I do think things have changed, however, with so many academics gaining a social media/popular history presence that challenges more traditional outlets and guardians of intellectual knowledge.

Miller: I’ve heard that they frown upon it, but frankly I’ve never understood why. We may not do peer review, but we do have a pretty intensive selection process and, as I’ve mentioned, I think our editing and copyediting are more thorough because we have fewer books and more resources. And authors can have informal peer reviews by asking colleagues to read for them. I should add the caveat, though, that while I think this is generally true of trade publishing, I really only have intimate knowledge of how Knopf works.

6) What is the structural relationship between academic and popular presses? Are they on friendly terms, or is there a sense of competition?

Miller: I think there was more competition several years ago, but due to challenges in the marketplace, I get the sense that trade publishers are taking on fewer “small” and midlist books. My hope is that this means university presses are able to sign up more of these books that may have some crossover potential, to help their bottom line.

I think I can safely say that trade publishers have only good will toward university presses (and personally I love to see something like Piketty or Nudge happen for a university press), but I suspect that’s not always shared since we do have a habit of swooping in and poaching authors once they’ve already been established by academic presses. Usually that results from an author finding an agent and approaching us, but I doubt that makes it much more palatable.

Stiles: I think overall the relationship is surprisingly congenial, because they operate in such different marketplaces. Often commercial presses will establish cooperative marketing, sales, and distribution agreements with small academic houses, which often lack business expertise and infrastructure.

7) How is the scope and reach of books published with a popular press different than those published by an academic press? What is the difference in print run? Pricing structure?

Stiles: Some academic presses have a trade presence, publishing titles that reach the New York Times bestseller list. But trade presses have much bigger pipeline to the general public, with far a greater publicity, marketing, sales, and distribution infrastructure. Non-academic reviewers are interested in books aimed at non-academics, so trade books get more press attention.

This is not just a matter of size, but of the structure of the two kinds of publishing. The academic market consists primarily of course adoption and library sales. The goal is to most fully penetrate that limited market, which depends largely on the prestige of the author or the perceived significance of the book’s scholarly contribution. This aligns their interests with those of academics, who advance in their careers through the acquisition of prestige from their books. That’s why academic presses subject manuscripts to peer review, and also why they spend almost nothing on marketing—the established system of professional discussion of new work does that for them. The sunk costs must be recovered by being spread out over a small number of units sold. This is true even in the age of digital books. The cost of producing a book does not largely consist of printing, warehousing, and distribution. It lies in the hours of work by editors, editorial assistants, copy editors, designers, and the advance and royalties for authors, promotion, and overhead. Don’t forget that many books lose money. That means the successful ones must cover the deficits. When academic books are sold to the general market, retailers usually take only 20 to 30 percent of the list price—compared to 50 percent for trade books. So bookstores don’t put academic books on their shelves.

Trade publishers face a riskier but potentially more rewarding environment. I’ve heard informally that something like 70 percent of trade books lose money. Trade publishers naturally reward success, putting marketing money into titles most likely to turn a profit. So if you complain that your publisher spends nothing on you and everything on, say, Stephen King, remember that books like his are why the publisher could take a risk on your book in the first place. With a trade book, the recovery of sunk costs can be distributed across a greater number of units, so the list price is often much lower than for an academic book. The list price, like the print run and the acquisition process, is a gamble. With hardcovers, royalties are usually 10 percent of the list price for the first 5,000 copies, 12.5 percent for the next 5,000, and 15 percent thereafter. With paperbacks, royalties are usually fixed at 7 or 8 percent of the list price. Before you get a royalty check, though, you must “earn out”: the royalties first repay your advance, though it is nonrefundable. Royalty periods are six months long, and you get your check (or statement, sans check) a few months after the end of each period. In other words, your book could become a bestseller, but you might not see any money from those sales for nearly a year. For e-books, the standard royalty rate gives trade authors 25 percent of the publisher’s revenue. Regarding advances: These days advances are usually broken up into four payments: On signing the contract, on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, on hardcover publication, and on paperback publication a year later after the hardcover. Most houses insist on the paperback rights, which used to be sold separately, and on the e-book rights. Your agent will negotiate other subsidiary rights, or the right to sell those rights, for audio books, translation, film and television adaptation, etc. The payments will go to your agent, who will withhold 15 percent and pay you the rest. Advance and subsidiary rights payments are not delayed, as with royalties. One final note: Though you are selling publication rights to a trade press, you retain the copyright. The publisher is your business partner, not your employer. Don’t expect fact checking or peer review. The onus of getting it right is on you.

Miller: In addition to our more scholarly works we publish more works by independent historians and journalists, probably with a great emphasis on narrative. But I’d say the history books on a university press’s trade list could often appear on ours. Our print runs vary widely but we generally would like to be above 10,000 to start. I think our prices tend to be quite a bit lower; $40 is the upper limit for us, unless a book is illustrated, and $30 to $35 is much more common for books under 800 pages.

8) In your opinion, what is the future of academic presses? Are they still viable in today’s economy?

Miller: I can’t speak to this with any real knowledge but, as mentioned above, I hope that the shift in our acquisitions has opened some doors for university presses, and that the ability to publish dissertations as e-books has enabled them to reduce costs. I tend to think of publishing as akin to an ecosystem: the more diversity, the better.

Stiles: Academic presses play an extremely important role in the scholarly ecosystem. They provide a means of professionally publishing books that are essential to sustaining academic disciplines with a degree of quality control. Of course, academic authors are generally not looking for income, but rather for the distribution of their research and ideas and the respect of their peers. Many naturally resent the high prices of academic books, particularly since there is a broad assumption these days that the creation of anything in digital form is essentially cost-free. As anyone who has edited, copy-edited, proofread, designed, or even sorted the mail at an academic press can tell you, that assumption is wrong. (Trade authors can also tell you that!) Yet the idea is pervasive, driving down public budgeting not only for university presses but also library acquisition. Such misperceptions, more than technological change itself, are squeezing academic presses. If scholarly publishers disappear, many academic books will be of lower quality and the costs will be borne entirely by the authors.