Hello, susbscribers! If you’re here for the science talk, you may want to skip this one. Today, I’m answering a frequently asked question about money and work: What’s it like to do history outside of the academy?
First things first, lest there be any misunderstandings: I do not actually make a living as a historian. My “day job” involves running an editorial and publishing consulting firm, The Outside Reader, that I founded in 2009, having previously worked in scholarly publishing. My company helps authors—mostly scholars, especially historians and sociologists—navigate the book publishing process. We specialize in what’s known in the publishing business as “serious nonfiction,” that is, original, researched works of nonfiction that generally advance an argument. Most, but not all, of my clients publish with university presses. Most, but not all, of my clients pay with research funds.
I put “day job” in quotes because being principal of The Outside Reader is not supposed to be a 40-hour-a-week job, though in practice it absorbs as much time as I’m willing to give it. I explicitly designed The Outside Reader’s business model to cross-subsidize my research and writing. My plan was to use the company to generate a steady income stream that would allow me significant time to write. Many, many contemporary writers have some sort of side gig that might actually be their main gig, whether it’s working in an MFA program or teaching yoga. The Outside Reader has been a great side gig/main gig for me, allowing me to write two books without feeling too much of a pinch.
OK, so why am I telling you this now?
Guilt, mostly, for whatever part I’ve played in aiding and abetting the tenured academy’s fantasy of a world in which their grad students can “be historians” without academic employment. I get a lot of requests from learned societies and/or history departments to “talk to our grad students about making a living as a historian.” When they first started rolling in, around the time that I finished my first book, I readily agreed, happy to be seen as a success story. Then I started insisting that I would only do so if also offered a platform to speak about my research—otherwise, what sense did it make to have me talk to the grad students about being a historian outside the academy? More recently, I’ve declined, pointing out that I don’t actually “make my living as a historian.” I make my living as a publishing professional, and my ability to do so has very little to do with my Ph.D.
This sounds grumpy and uncharitable. I do not mean it to be. I want, instead, to be transparent about the fact that, with the exception of the year that I received the advance for Freedom’s Laboratory, less than 10 percent of my annual income comes from historian-y things. I have been paid anywhere from $0 to $2,500 for academic speaking engagements, with the vast majority in the $200 to $500 range. The kinds of op-eds and online commentary pieces that historians tend to write generally pay between $100 to $250. Pay scales for book reviews for non-scholarly outlets vary dramatically, but most are in this same range.
My “historian” income would presumably be higher if I pitched more, and pitched a different kind of writing, but it’s hard to find that motivation when I know how much more my editorial clients value my time…which means I write less and edit more. Successful side gigs tend to expand to fill all available time, which is good and bad, depending on what you want out of life. Sometimes I crave more time for writing, but mostly I’m grateful to have found a steady, flexible, intellectually satisfying line of work.
It’s also worth emphasizing how much of “being a historian” involves unpaid labor, or even costs out of pocket. On two separate occasions I agreed to pay for my own train ticket to deliver an unpaid lecture to a federal agency. When I was researching Freedom’s Lab, I routinely funded archival trips by doing client work in airports and hotel rooms (developmental editing is a supremely portable side gig). But at least I had a way to cross-subsidize my research. Graduate students, adjunct lecturers, and faculty at underresourced departments routinely pay their own way to conferences for the opportunity to share their work. Some journals—even reputable ones!—require authors to pay “page fees” to publish their work. Scholarly journals, university presses, and many other parts of the scholarly apparatus absolutely depend on the willingness of historians to do unpaid labor.
The history profession, in other words, has long relied on people having jobs that cover their overhead. Traditionally, that overhead came in the form of tenured professorships that included social rewards for unpaid cultural production. It is not at all clear to me that any of this can survive the cataclysmic shifts underway in the academy, whether in the form of contingent labor, declining salaries, or even the academic star system, let alone cross-subsidy models. None of these trends incentivize scholars to spend their evenings and weekends writing articles for paywalled journals that their non-academic collagues can’t access, or assembling programs for conferences that people can’t get time off work to attend.
I don’t know what we do about this. I do know that a lot of people are facing hard choices. It’s not sustainable to pretend that people with PhDs can somehow keep the profession humming along without any institutional support.
On a more personal note, my emergence from Pandemic, Round One, has left me struggling with the question that Erin Bartram asked so powerfully in her viral piece on leaving the academy: “Why should I publish?” My answer has always been that I had something to say. But I’ll also be the first to admit that doing history as a side gig is exhausting. I’m running on fumes. Two times in the past month I’ve caught myself thinking that I’d finish a task “yesterday,” which isn’t how time works. Clearly, I need a break. I’ll be releasing fewer issues of the newsletter for the remainder of the summer and fall while I attempt to restore some sort of balance between my side gig, my main gig, and the rest of my life.
Be easy with yourself and each other. It’s going to be a long winter.
That's all for now— Audra
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