How academic historians can make money on the side and enhance their impact. (Maybe.)

I am not a techie, but I live with one and seem to know, or know about, a lot of them, and one of the activities they seem to undertake *field notebook out* is selling specialist knowledge to each other. Here’s just one example. This guy wrote two e-books on popular technical subjects, they were successful, so he wrote an e-book about how to write e-books. Actually, you don’t even need to buy a book like that to get a grasp of the topic; the internet is stiff with blogposts telling you how to make money out of self-publishing, how to make money out of online educating, how to sell your skills – and not all of them are selling shovels to prospectors; some of them have done it.

How many of these tech knowledge brokers are making a living out of selling specialist knowledge, as opposed to treating it as supplementary income, or even a loss-making activity designed to give them a leg-up into existing institutional structures such as employment, is hard to quantify. Perhaps it’s something that will shake out over the next ten years or so.

But let’s leave the tedious lucre questions to one side and reaffirm the principle: technical people are for historical reasons accustomed to the idea that there are people out there who are experts in the stuff that they need to know, that they can pay them (in micro amounts, generally) to access that knowledge in non-traditional forms, and that the internet is the appropriate forum for all this. Moreover, the knowledge on offer gets much more specialized than “how to design web apps” (although by extension it may well make less money).

By analogy with previous social developments on the internet, where technical people go, the rest of us follow in descending order of socio-economic grouping and (although this is changing) ascending order of age. This is why sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo exist. This is why I watch Khan Academy videos and am playing around on Code Academy.

All this will seem a very quick and clumsy summary to people who are closer to these developments than I am. I’m attempting it because a classicist whose blog I enjoy is contemplating a colleague who has quit her post for the bright lights of “entrepreneurial activity in history”, and is wondering – not too seriously, perhaps – about his own Plan B outside academia. You will notice that the post, and his comments, tends towards assuming that traditional publishing and other established media are the obvious choices for an academic historian seeking to make the transition to popular or public historian.

Obviously, this is not necessarily the case. Is there any reason why academic historians shouldn’t self-publish?

Let’s have a look at what Nathan Barry, referenced above, says about the problems and pitfalls of writing e-books from the perspective of most people who might try to do it:

Writing a book is hard. Not for an academic historian. To be sure, there are issues of style to address in the transition to a non-academic audience, but the act of writing a paperback’s worth of words itself is a familiar hurdle. In fact, a paperback’s worth is pushing it. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation is the length of a long article, which is as long as he needs to make a single acute point with far-reaching implications. Do you have to compromise on the complexity of your content? I’ll come to that in another post, perhaps, but my instinct is, if you’re happy to treat this as supplementary income from a niche audience, not as much you’d think.

I’m not an expert… I don’t have a PhD in marketing or design and I don’t travel the world giving lectures–all things you would typically associate with experts. Clearly not in point here.

Building a following for your blog takes time. Yes, but various academics including Professor Morley don’t seem to have a problem doing that. Anyway, part of the reason it’s hard for ordinary civilians to build a following for a blog which professes to be authoritative on a particular subject is that they don’t have immediate and obvious authority platform to speak from. See “I’m not an expert”.

Let me be clear, I am not recommending this particular “how to sell e-books” e-book. I haven’t bought it. I probably won’t. It just happens to be an example known to me, and I’m using it to point out that the things most people find hard about making money through self-publishing and other knowledge brokering activities are not typically going to be things that academics find hard.

So, conversely, why should academics self-publish? Are there really enough people out there willing to pay for, say, a spiky little pamphlet on Roman economics to make writing it worth an academic’s while, what with all the other calls on their time? What are the benefits of such “entrepreneurial” approaches, relative to the clout of traditional publishing and other mass media?

At the moment, and until I can read more about the audience I have in mind, my answer is It Depends. I doubt I would have gone into a bookstore and bought the kind of book Tyler Cowen might have ended up writing if he had taken The Great Stagnation to a traditional publisher. But mainly I’m just observing that the commodification of specialist knowledge via non-traditional formats works very well indeed in some communities for some people. I can’t see any systemic reason why it shouldn’t work for academic historians, classicists and archaeologists.


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