Becoming a popular history writer: Post PhD (Part 2)

By Owen Rees

By 2020 I had my PhD, two pop history books and an academic book under review. I had produced research articles, edited chapters, organised conferences, and had begun preparation for an edited volume. I wanted to create a public history project, one that was mine, but that I could share with others. So, with the support of Ancient World Magazine, I established the fact-checking website Bad Ancient, which is steadily growing an amazing network of contributors from undergraduate students up to full Professors. Most contributors are approached by me, looking for relevant experts to answer queries, but some have also offered unsolicited help. In that case, their name goes on a spreadsheet and they get sent relevant queries to answer if they wish.

That project is going from strength to strength, but there were questions about my own writing career: should I return to the publishers and magazines that had always supported me, or should I try and take the next step. The next step for this meant bigger publishers, but bigger publishers do not accept unsolicited proposals. I needed a literary agent.

For over a year, I sent dozens and dozens of submissions to a host of agents who specialised in, or were explicitly asking for, history writers. One replied in the negative, none of the others replied at all. At a loss of what to do, I reached out to someone who had successfully made this transition, MCPHH’s own Prof. Catherine Fletcher. We spoke about the book market, the publishing market, indeed the history market. What seems to be selling, what is not selling. What makes for an interesting topic vs what makes for an interesting read. I drafted a full book proposal, roughly 10,000 words long, and Prof. Fletcher put me in touch with the agency that represents her. A foot in the door, no question, but there alone I stood waiting for judgement. After a year of back and forth, edits, re-edits, and at one point a complete change of topic and focus, the agency was happy with the pitch. Now they agreed to sign me, and to submit the proposal to a variety of publishing houses. If you are simply looking to do some popular history writing on the side as a hobby, I do not recommend going through this final process!

So, the book idea sold, and The Far Edges of the Known World will be out in autumn 2024. This moment was a long time in the making, with little guidance available for someone wanting to begin writing popular history. I made mistakes, learned the hard way, and established some guidelines I follow to this day:

  • I do not write for free. If I do write for free, it must be for the development of my portfolio/personal brand/career.
  • Due to point number one, I learned to chase invoices with gusto. The trick is to be assertive in what is rightfully yours – I cannot leave a plumber unpaid, so why should a writer be treated differently?
  • Build your network. The network I crafted is what got me my first book contract and to this day allows the Bad Ancient website to function.
  • To create a network: be nice, follow up by email, be reliable, ask for what you want/need, and offer help whenever you can.
  • I work in 5-year plans (yes, yes, I know, I hate me too!). What do you actually want to achieve, and what does that look like? Break that up into steps, what do you need to do first – what next – then what? Say no to work that do not help achieve this plan (if you need to, of course).
  • A PhD in history does not make you a writer – writing for the public is a very different style to academic prose.
  • Historical credibility is paramount. Poetic license exists for scene setting and filling in gaps, but the evidence must be at the heart of it all.
  • It is better to be a good writer that can be trusted, than an excellent one who cannot.
  • Spot an opportunity and grasp it without hesitation or apology.

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