Writing and Publishing

Why Are Popular History Books Popular?

WhyWhat makes popular history books "popular?" Over the last few months, I have read several popular history books for Ben Franklin's World.

I read these books with the same care and thought I give to scholarly work. I also read them with an eye toward trying to figure out why they are "popular."

Why do history lovers choose these books over scholarly ones, which often contain better evidence, information, and analysis?

In this post, I offer observations about the popularity of popular history books.


Popular History Books Feature People

Many historians argue that popular history books are popular because they tackle a founding father or famous person.

A casual glance at the bookshelves or best-seller tables at Barnes and Noble supports this idea.

With that said, I am not convinced that famous people make popular history books popular.

Listeners of Ben Franklin's World love learning about the founders and famous people, but do you know what they love learning about even more?

The lives of everyday people.

Each week, I receive e-mails with requests that I present more episodes about how non-famous, non-elite men and women lived.

You know who tackles this topic best and writes about it the most?

Academic historians.

If readers want to read about everyday men and women, why are popular history books popular?

They are popular because they feature people readers can follow and live through vicariously. I suspect that many history lovers settle for books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they can't find books about people like Martha Ballard or George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The feedback my listeners provide strongly suggests that they would love to read books about men or women who lived average lives; books that allowed them to witness the past through the eyes of someone like them.


Amazon Bestselling History Books Jan 2016


Popular History Books Use Plain, Evocative Language

Language has the power to evoke ideas, images, and emotions. The writers of popular history books embrace language. They use words and idioms that enliven or humanize the people and events they write about.

I love scholarly history books, but comparatively the language within them is flat. Many scholars focus more on the point they are trying to make rather than on how they express their point. Popular history writers pay more attention to expression.

Popular history writers also use plain language, short sentences, and idioms.

You won't find the "technical or specialized parlance of a specific social or occupational group" in a popular history book. You also won't find copious citations or in-text references to other historians' books.*

Popular history writers write like they talk.

Scholarly writers often write like distant narrators who use big words and complex sentences.


Popular History Books Make Judgement Calls

Writers of popular history books pass judgement. Historians mince words.

Often, scholarly authors use language that both implies judgement and offers them plausible deniability for such thoughts.

For example, a popular history author writes "Benjamin Franklin was a womanizer." An author of a scholarly work pens "Benjamin Franklin seemed to have an affinity for women given all of the flirtatious language in his surviving correspondence."

Readers view authors as subject experts. They want to know the writer's opinion on the topic or person at hand. A preference at odds with scholars' training.



I offer the above as observations on the patterns I see.

I freely admit that while reading some popular history books my eyes have rolled and audible, exasperated sighs have passed through my lips.

I think popular history writers are on to something with people and the use of plain, evocative language.

If writers of scholarly history books took these techniques and applied them to their studies of everyday men and women, I believe we could see a resurgence of scholarly historical research on bestseller lists and on the bookshelves of non-university bookstores.


*Encyclopedia Britannica, "jargon."

5 Tips for How to Start a Writing Group Plus The Origins of #BookSquad

typewriterDo you have a community of writers you can rely on to push you to meet deadlines and write the best books and articles possible? In this post, you will discover how to start a writing group and the origins of my writing group, #BookSquad.


Origins of #BookSquad

One of my big goals for 2015 was to finish my book: America’s First Gateway: Albany and the Making of America.

I have lofty, but achievable (I think) goals for my book. I want America’s First Gateway to be a well-researched, well-written, and accessible book. It should speak to both my colleagues and non-historians.

#BookSquad came about because I need help accomplishing these goals. I need to be around writers who can lend perspective to my project and who will set and hold me accountable for deadlines.


Starting a Writing Group: How #BookSquad Came Together

I expressed my desire to start a writing group to Megan Kate Nelson, a friend and fellow historian. I told her how I wanted the group to be an in-person workshop with a focus on writing well-researched, accessible history books. Megan loved the idea and suggested that we invite Kevin Levin to join us. He accepted our invitation.

Not long after I spoke with Megan and Kevin, I had lunch with Heather Cox Richardson. We met to discuss digital public history; Heather is a co-founder of the fantastic digital history magazine We’re History. During our conversation, I mentioned how I was starting a writing group with Megan and Kevin. Heather asked if she could join us and suggested that we invite Seth Jacobs, her colleague at Boston College, too.

EditWithin a week or two, I had found four historians who shared my writing goals and who wanted to participate in a group where we could help each other achieve them. As I reflected upon my good fortune, I realized that our group consisted of one historian of early America (me), three historians of the Civil War Era (Megan, Kevin, and Heather), and one historian specializing in twentieth-century United States diplomatic history (Seth). This felt unbalanced so I invited Sara Georgini to join us.

Sara works as an Assistant Editor at the Adams Papers Documentary Editing Project. Although she trained as an historian of 19th-century American religion, her work with the Adams Papers has provided her with a great command of the historiographies for both early America and early 20th-century United States history. She also interacts with members of the public on a regular basis.

Our first meeting took place at Heather’s house in June 2015. We met over dinner and used the meeting as a chance to get to know each other. We also established the format for our group: monthly meetings; dinner, drink, and socializing first; writing workshop during dessert. This format works well for us. We socialize for the first 60-90 minutes of our meeting and then spend the next 60-90 minutes having a frank conversation about one member’s workshop submission.

After our first meeting, we gained two more members and our name, #BookSquad. Nina Silber (historian of the Civil War Era) asked to join us after seeing Megan post about our first meeting on Facebook. Tom Thurston (historian of 20th-century United States History) asked to join after seeing Heather post about a subsequent meeting. Sara dubbed us #BookSquad in her Facebook post, which we adopted and, for whatever reason, always write as a hashtag.


5 Tips for How to Form a Writing Group

1. Define your goals: What do you want to accomplish with your writing and what do you want to get out of working with a writing group?

You need answers to these questions so you can find likeminded writers and get the most out of your writing group.


2. Find likeminded people: The best writing groups consist of writers who work on similar genres and who share similar goals.

The needs of a poet differ from those of an historian. In my experience (#BookSquad is my fourth writing group), it helps when you work with people who work on similar genres. This doesn’t mean that everyone in your group needs to be an historian, but you may find it helpful if everyone in your group has a serious, non-fiction project so you can assist each other with research and methodology questions.

In terms of where to find potential members, start with your personal network. Once you figure out what type of writing group you want to form or join, ask your friends and colleagues whether they have or would like to join a group like you described.


3. Meet regularly: Find a schedule that works for you.

Whether you form a virtual writing group or an in-person writing group, be sure you meet regularly. Regular meetings will help you stay motivated and accountable when it comes to achieving your writing goals.


Books4. Find balance between project similarity and diversity: Work with people you wouldn’t normally work with.

As an early American historian, I don’t often engage with the historiography of the Civil War or twentieth century. In fact, I haven’t really engaged with these historiographies since I passed my comps in 2007.

Being in a group with so many mid-to-late 19th-century specialists can be both daunting and interesting. When one of the 19th-century historians workshops a chapter, the majority of the group starts in on whether the chapter addressed the important and recent works in their field. They also nitpick facts. This is fun to watch and I learn a lot, but Seth, Tom, and I cannot help our friends on the same level.

Instead, we tell them where we didn’t understand something because we are not so well versed in the historiography or where there is a similar example in early American or twentieth-century U.S. history that they might find helpful. These outside perspectives prove useful when workshopping the chronology and structure of a chapter.


5. Create a safe workshop environment: Writing is a personal activity; you present your thoughts and ideas for the world to consider. Be sure you join or start a writing group that creates a safe, honest, and respectful place for workshopping members' writing.

#BookSquad has created a safe and homey workshop space: We meet around the dinner table.

The person who submitted their work hosts the meeting at their house and cooks the main course. Every member brings an appetizer, side dish, and/or bottle of wine to add to the meal. We share food, personal stories, and conversation around the table. When we are done eating, we clear the table and sit down to work.

Our workshop is friendly, but intense. We have a respectful, but honest conversation about the submitted chapter. We discuss historiography, structure, and writing style. The nature of writing makes the workshop personal, but the social hour beforehand helps us remember that we are all friends offering advice that will make the offered chapter better.



Writing groups will help you improve your writing and help you increase your productivity. However, a good writing can be hard to find. Sometimes finding the right group involves trying out several different groups before you find the right one. You may also need patience while you seek out members for your ideal group.

Unfortunately, I will not meet my goal of finishing America's First Gateway in 2015. However, with the motivation and accountability provided by #BookSquad, I am confident I will make significant progress between now and the end of 2016.


Share Your Story

Do you belong to a writing group? How did you find it? What genres do its members write?


How to Pitch a Podcaster

How to Pitch a PodcasterWhat do you think of the following pitch?

Dear Ms. Covart,

I think my new book George Washington's Winter Wardrobe would make a good discussion piece for Ben Franklin's World. [Amazon Link]


John Doe

Are you underwhelmed?

I am.

Yet believe it or not, the above pitch represents the format of most of the pitches I receive for Ben Franklin's World: Greeting, book title, amazon link, sign-off.

Podcasts offer historians powerful tools to promote their books and ideas. In this post, you will discover how to pitch a podcaster in a way that will garner you serious consideration for a guest spot.


Behind-the-Scenes of a Podcast

When you download a podcast you receive a 30-60 minute audio file. What you may not know is that 30-60 minute episode represents many hours of a podcaster's time.

For example, each episode of Ben Franklin's World takes 15-20 hours to produce. That work includes reading your book, developing an outline for our discussion, conducting and recording your interview, editing your interview, drafting show notes, recording an intro and outro, mastering the episode so it has a radio-like sound, listening to the final recording to ensure quality, tagging the audio file, uploading the audio file to a hosting service, editing and posting show notes, creating a custom episode graphic for social media, and marketing your episode to listeners and social media followers.

Admittedly, I am spend more time working on episodes than many podcasters because I am committed to ensuring that each of my guest historians sounds as good as possible. However, most podcasters spend at least 6-10 hours on each episode they produce. The majority of us put a ton of work into our shows and you know what?

Very few of us get paid to do this work. We podcast because we have a passion for the media and our topic.

When we receive pitches like the one above we feel insulted. The above pitch demonstrates that the sender did not take the time to get to know us, our show, or our audience. It also reflects that the sender does not value our time. We are too busy to research you and your book, which is why most of us either do not reply or send an automatic "no" when we receive such an e-mail.


How to Pitch a Podcaster: Secrets Revealed

BFWorld Studio

Many podcasters want to be pitched and we want to say "yes."

How do you get us to say "yes?"

Woo us.

That's right, we want to be courted. We want you to tell us who you are, why you love our show, and about the value you can provide to our listeners.


A Good, Fictitious Pitch

Dear Dr. Covart,

I have been following your work for some time and I must say, I enjoy your tweets about early American history. I am sorry that your beloved Red Sox finished in the basement of the AL East this year, but at least there is next year, right?

I write to you because I think my new book George Washington's Winter Wardrobe [amazon link embedded in title text or included at bottom of e-mail] would make an excellent conversation topic for a Ben Franklin's World episode. Mine is the first book to describe and analyze Washington's extensive array of winter capes, jackets, gloves, and boots. I heard you speak with Kimberly Alexander in episode 024. You discussed the deliberate thought early American people gave when they had their shoes and clothes custom tailored to fit the styles of the times they lived in. Did you know that Washington did the same before each winter encampment? The cloak he sported during the frigid winter of 1779/80 at Jockey Hollow was 2 lbs heavier than the one he wore at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777/78. He had an extra-heavy lining installed after his experience at Valley Forge. Also, by wearing his blue wool cape with red lining around the encampment, Washington caused a surge in demand for similar cloaks, which stimulated the national economy. I think your listeners would enjoy hearing this story of how the fashion trends established by Washington's winter wardrobe put Americans to work. We could also talk about how seamstresses and tailors fashioned Washington's wardrobe too as I know your audience loves to hear about the details of everyday life in early America.

If you think your audience would be interested in my work, please let me know and I will have my publisher send you a copy of my book for your further consideration. You should also know that I have over 10 years experience working with clothing and other material sources and that I often speak to public audiences about how historians use clothing to learn about and interpret the past.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

John Doe


Podcaster Pitch Anatomy

Introduction: Demonstrate that you took the time to research the podcast host.

In the above letter, the writer demonstrates that they know I hold a Ph.D., that I like to tweet about early American History, and that I am a huge Red Sox fan. This doesn't mean that they have followed my work for some time, but it does mean that they took the time to visit my website and read my about page and Twitter bio.

Pitch Paragraph: Get to the point.

The author of this fictitious pitch tells me that they have a new book that they wish to discuss on my podcast. They also explain why their book is significant and why my audience might be interested in hearing about the author's ideas. Furthermore, the prospective guest demonstrates that they have listened to Ben Franklin's World. They know about my past guests and show topics and they used that information to explain why their topic is a good fit for my show.

Bio Paragraph: Who are you?

In addition to offering me a review copy of their book, the author tells me personal details that demonstrate why they would make a good guest: They have over 10 years experience working with material sources and they have experience speaking to non-historians about how-to use clothing as a primary source.

Closing: Thank and sign off.

Thank the podcaster for their time and sign your name.



Although not perfectly worded, the above pitch would garner attention from most podcasters because it tells us what we need to know: Who you are, why your book is significant, and why you would make a good guest.

The above letter also demonstrates respect. It shows that the sender took the time to get to know the host, their show, and their audience.


Additional Resources

Do you have questions about how to pitch a podcast host? Leave a comment below, tweet me, or listen to my friend Natalie Eckdahl's episode on "How to Pitch a Podcaster."


New Article, New Project: The Articles of Confederation

Articles of ConfederationThe editors of the Journal of Early American History have published my article "Trade, Diplomacy, and American Independence: Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. and the Business of Trade During the Confederation Era" in their latest edition. I came across the papers of Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. during my volunteer work at the Albany Institute of History and Art. In exchange for building a finding aid for the Ten Eyck/Gansevoort Papers (MG2), I had the opportunity to be the first scholar to look at the collection. I had hoped that the papers would contain information for my book project AMERICA'S FIRST GATEWAY: ALBANY, NEW YORK AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA, 1614-1830. Instead, the collection led me to my second book project: The Articles of Confederation.

The Ten Eyck/Gansevoort collection contains many of the papers from Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co., an import-export firm that conducted business during the Confederation Era. The correspondence between Jacob Cuyler, Leonard Gansevoort, and their trading partners reveal the hope and perils of conducting domestic and foreign trade during the first years of American independence.

The idea for my second book project came as I wrote the historiography section, which I opted to place toward the end of the article as not to breakup the story of Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. Few books discuss the Articles of Confederation on its own terms. Merrill Jensen wrote two books on the subject between 1940 and 1950. Since Jensen's work, scholars who discuss or investigate the Articles look upon the government as a stepping stone to the Constitution of 1787.

My future book will not claim the Articles of Confederation as a successful government. My article below uses a case study to discuss the diplomatic and economic weaknesses of the government. Instead, my book on the Articles will investigate the government and its making within the context of the American Revolution. I am sure it will take great interest in the regional debates surrounding the formation of the government because I am fascinated by the diversity of American culture and how the United States functions despite Americans' cultural differences.



Journalists, Platforms, & Historians

blogYou 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).

Click here to read Ann's post