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.

Professor Catherine Fletcher Inaugural Lecture – A foul and pestilent discovery: Handguns as a new technology in early modern Europe

27 April 2022, 5.30 – 7pm, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester School of Art, Benzie Building

Register for tickets here.

A foul and pestilent discovery: Handguns as a new technology in early modern Europe

Guns are often described as one of the quintessentially modern technologies. Yet remarkably little is known about their impact on European societies in the first century of their development. Drawing on research in multiple Italian archives, Catherine Fletcher explores the ways that sixteenth-century states attempted to exploit firearms’ military potential, while at the same time regulating their use in the interest of maintaining public order. She investigates the range of contemporary attitudes towards firearms, from literary hostility to civic pride to gun users’ pleasure in shooting. Many of the concerns raised by early critics of guns still have resonance in debates on arms control today.

Catherine Fletcher is Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University and head of the Manchester Centre for Public History & Heritage.

Alongside academic work on the history of diplomacy, she is the author of several books bringing sixteenth-century history to broad audiences including Our Man in Rome: Henry VIII and his Italian Ambassador (Bodley Head, 2012), The Black Prince of Florence: The Spectacular Life and Treacherous World of Alessandro de’ Medici (Bodley Head, 2016) and The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance (Bodley Head, 2020). Her work has been featured internationally on TV and radio in programmes ranging from BBC2’s A Fresh Guide to Florence to hit podcast Your Dead To Me, to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Art Show.

Catherine’s current research focuses on the early history of firearms in Italy and beyond: she has chapters on this topic forthcoming in the Bloomsbury Cultural History of Technology (ed. Raffaele Pisano) and in Working in the Shadows of War in Renaissance Europe (Amsterdam University Press, ed. Stephen Bowd, Sarah Cockram and John Gagné).

Professor Fletcher’s respondent will be Professor Peter Wilson

Peter H. Wilson lives in England and is the Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford, a Fellow of All Souls College, and Principal Investigator of a research project on the ‘European Fiscal-Military System 1530-1870’ funded by the European Research Council (2018-25). Previously, he held posts at the universities of Hull, Newcastle, and Sunderland, as well as visiting positions at the University of Münster, Germany, and at High Point University, North Carolina USA. He the President of the Society for the History of War and works on the history of German-speaking Europe, and the history of war between 1500 and 1900.

His books include Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (2009) which has also appeared in German, Polish and Spanish. His books include The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History (2016), and Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (2009) which won the Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award. His work has been translated into Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Macedonian, Polish, and Spanish. His latest book, Blood and Iron: A Military History of the German-speaking Peoples since 1500, will be published in October 2022.

Professor Steve Decent, Provost & Deputy Vice Chancellor, will introduce Professor Fletcher

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!

Episode 7 – The Legendary 1945 Manchester Pan African Congress: Professor Ola Uduku, Dr Kai Syng Tan, and Dr Marie Molloy

Plaque commemorating fifth Pan African Congress Conference, Courtesy of By KGGuewa

The Pan African Congress of 1945 took place in Chorlton-on-Medlock Town Hall, now a Manchester Metropolitan University Building. It was a legendary conference, attracting leaders from future African independence movements. In 2020, a group came together, and put on an incredible series of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the congress. We were delighted to hear from Ola, Kai, and Marie who were instrumental in organising PAC75.

Delegates to the Fifth Pan-African Congress, Manchester. Copyright Manchester Archives Plus.

Check out the PAC75 Youtube channel where you can access many of the great events that took place.

Access the episode of Spotify.

Episode 3 – ‘Histories, Stories, Voices’ in Manchester’s Public Spaces with Karen Shannon and Councillor Luthfur Rahman

In episode 3 of the podcast we had a great conversation with Karen Shannon, Chief Executive of Manchester Histories and Councillor Luthfur Rahman from Manchester City Council. We discussed history in Manchester’s public spaces.

Manchester Histories and Manchester City Council have started a consultation into Manchester’s artworks, ‘Histories, Stories and Voices’. Take part in the consultation here.

You can also sign up to public discussions on the ways the city’s stories are told through monuments, statues, memorials & place names in Manchester’s public spaces here. 10 March 2021, 2pm and 7pm.

Listen on Spotify here.