You know you've made it as an academic blogger when a senior scholar reads one of your blog posts and expands upon it on their blog. This happened to me last week, when "Historiann" Ann M. Little read "How to Write for Your Readers" and offered a follow-up post.
Ann points out that in addition to writing a good story, journalists have the benefit of platforms and publisher advances that they can use to hire researchers.
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.
Additionally, Ann questions whether historians should attempt to compete with journalists when they write their books.
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.
I am all for writing the best books possible, but like Ann, I wouldn't want to hire out my research. I enjoy researching. I also like that I can control the material I see and consider.
You should check out Ann's post. She provides great insight into academic publishing and she offers a sneak peak at her forthcoming book The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale, 2016).