Becoming a popular history writer: Pre-PhD (Part 1)

By Owen Rees

I started out as a popular history writer in 2009, while studying for my MA. With only a BA degree to trade on, I discarded the big history magazines (BBC, History Today, Smithsonian) as the least likely to accept a pitch from me, and created a spreadsheet of small or niche magazines that paid for contributions. It could be small amounts (£100 an article) or it could be per word (12p a word was my highest rate), but they had to pay. As my wife continues to tell me: if you don’t value your time and work, why would anyone else?

Your ideas have to be topical, fresh, interesting, and with a good narrative at its core. But it is not just the idea you are selling. Ultimately what you are trying to sell is yourself – the ‘author brand’. Articles and books are sold on an idea, so the editor needs to trust that you can deliver. I always submitted my articles early and never interfered with the editor’s job unless their changes created an error. I always responded to queries as quickly as possible. Once they knew I could be relied on, I got more commissions.

Writing for small, niche history magazines secured my first book contracts. In 2013 a commissioning editor at Pen & Sword emailed to ask if I would be interested in writing a book for them following a recommendation from colleagues at Ancient Warfare Magazine. This publisher accepts unsolicited proposals (you can just send them in and cross your fingers), but they were trying to grow their ancient warfare section. History publishing is a small world, so networking is an important aspect that is too often neglected. I did not fit in the conventional history networks (academia, Oxbridge graduate, etc), so I worked on creating my own and this was the first time it paid dividends.

By the following year, 2014, my proposal for one book had, at the editor’s request, become two. I signed a double book deal for Great Battles of the Classical Greek World, and Great Naval Battles of the Ancient Greek World. Money was a major concern during this period, I had a young family and no secure employment. There was an advance paid, half on signing and half on submission. The amounts were small in the grand scheme of things, but money was such that I could not afford to turn it down. But time was also a problem. My wife was working, so I was a stay-at-home dad for long periods, in between jobs in retail, offices, and a rather enjoyable stint as a gardener in a dementia care home. I wrote most of the first book with a baby on my shoulder and baby-sick on my shirt. In 2015, life as it stood was not really viable so I applied for a PhD at Manchester Metropolitan and also won a scholarship, which would equate to the most amount of money I had ever earned in a year.

Balancing PhD work, wider commitments at the university to aid the CV building, teaching, family life, and pop history writing, was no easy feat. But I came up with a system, a system my poor third year students are probably sick of me talking about. To put it simply, I work in threes: three projects on the go at any one time. One is in the finishing stages (proofing, editing, etc), another is in the writing stage, and the final one is in the research stage. I never research about what it is I am writing at the time. I never write chapters for the work I am editing, and so on. At the moment, I have two in the finishing stage (academic publishing is slow!), my trade book that I am writing, and I am researching the next academic research project/book.

This also helped when it came to time management, especially with two young children. I refused to work weekends; my family deserved some time with me! So, I learned to exploit the time I had available in the week. If I had an hour between coming home from a lecture and doing the school run, I would read an article or chapter for the researching project. If I had a morning free, I would work on the edits for a finishing project. If I had a full workday(!) I would write. If I had a mental block, I’d put down one project and pick up another. If nothing works, it’s time to go over the edits or do some proof reading.

Stay tuned for part two, this week!