By Colin Woodward
Here’s the amount of money I have made so far from selling hundreds of copies of a peer-reviewed book, published by one of the best universities in the South, featured on amazon.com, and carried in stores at Barnes and Noble: $0.
Here’s the amount of money I have made by writing about Johnny Cash: $450. And I haven’t published anything yet on him.
If you had told me fifteen years ago that studying Johnny Cash was more lucrative than the Civil War, I would have started research on Cash back in graduate school.
Last month, I was lucky to win a prize from the Pulaski County Historical Society for an article I wrote on Johnny Cash and his early Arkansas roots. I had never shown the article to anyone before sending it to the prize committee. The award was $300. It’s the largest prize I have ever won.
Last month, I also did a ten minute spoke-word story on the podcast Tales from the South about my adventure in Cashlandia. A day after it aired, someone at University of Arkansas Press asked me to review a manuscript on Cash. And I would receive a $150 honorarium for doing so.
Welcome to the weird world of historical scholarship. You never really know where and when you will get paid for writing anything. If you’re lucky, you’ll one day get paid for writing something.
Being a scholar entails a long period of apprenticeship. Early on, you can’t be picky. Write reviews for anyone. Get an article published in a journal, if you can. But keep writing. Then, once you’re done with your advanced degree, get your book published, as quickly as possible. Don’t expect any money from it. Try not to wince when you hear about the millions of copies that bourgeois trash like Fifty Shades of Grey sold. And try not to be too bitter.
For a while, simply getting published will be a thrill. Eventually, though, writing history for free becomes exhausting and frustrating. And yet, you learn there is a at least a little money to be made at various places. Academic book reviews and book publishers don’t pay well, if at all. But some encyclopedias, whether online or print versions, may offer from $30-60 for an entry. That’s not much when you work out the hourly rate for writing a scholarly encyclopedia entry. But it’s more than zero, more than you would get for a peer-reviewed book or article, and you will feel better about getting money for writing.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas, for example, offers to pay for all entries (it also gives you the option to donate the money back to the encyclopedia). It’s a great way to get practice writing and doing the historical craft. And you can earn enough money for dinner.
In the past few years, I’ve made a few hundred dollars writing for encyclopedias. But my book? Well. I’m still waiting for my first check. Charlie Rose, please return my calls.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is writing a book on Johnny Cash.