From the Profession column of the March 2010 issue of Perspectives on History

Reaching a Broader Audience: History Writing for the Young Adult Market

Russell Olwell, March 2010

As historians, most of the writing we do is for each other. We write for specialists in our field, and in many cases, obscurity in our choice of subject or approach is almost expected. Many of the books I review for scholarly journals are pitched to a narrow audience, numbering in the hundreds, if not tens. A few seem directly aimed at the author’s dissertation committee and immediate family, recalling historian Howard Zinn’s ringing denunciation in his book, The Politics of History (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1990, p. 116), of the boring, overspecialized dissertation: “The primary requirement of finding an untouched decade or topic or person almost assures that several years of intense labor will end in some monstrous irrelevancy.”

Once in a while, though, an opportunity comes to reach out to a broader audience. For me, the chance to write a short history book for young adults was too good to pass up. My first book, At Work in the Atomic City, was about the history of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where workers, scientists, and engineers developed the facilities that processed uranium for the atomic bomb during World War II. The book found a supportive academic publisher, and it has been generating small but steady royalty checks ever since. It also helped me get tenure.

The publisher of the young adult book series was looking for an expert in nuclear weapons to do a short guide to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), aimed at the library reference market. The book also had a broad and interesting scope. It focused on an international agency whose reach stretched from Brazil to North Korea, and the time period ranged from the 1940s to the present. My hope was that the book could prompt inquiry among the students who read it, rather than simply restate information that could be found somewhere else.

However, I had no previous experience with for-profit, non-scholarly publishing, and as I got more involved with the project, I learned a few lessons about the differences between writing for a university press and for a non-scholarly publisher.
The first big change was evident in the contract. The financial structure of writing for a for-profit publisher is the mirror opposite of a university press book. My contract for At Work in an Atomic City included royalties from the first book sold, but I have seen other book contracts where larger royalty payments start only after 1,000 copies have been sold. The for-profit book contract gave me an upfront payment, with no royalties. In short, the book was a “work for hire,” just like painting a house. Once it is turned in, the work is really no longer your own. It belongs to the publisher to publish—or not.

As writing and editing got underway, it was clear that I was not working at university press speed, but at a highly accelerated pace. The timeline in which a project is conceived, designed, written, edited, and produced is greatly compressed. For an academic book, you are always impatient with the speed of the publisher, as you may wait months for comments and suggestions to arrive from the reviewers of the manuscript. For a nonacademic book, the roles are reversed, and the editors might request revisions over e-mail within a day of your receiving comments. While I had months of time between drafts for many scholarly projects, for this young adult book, turnaround time was shrunk to days. Text needed to be composed, edited, and rewritten in a matter of hours.

As the process moved into final editing, I discovered that the tone and style of the book were not going to sound like me at all and that I would be edited with a far heavier hand than at a university press. Especially if you are writing for a series of books, there is less stylistic leeway in a popular book than in a scholarly manuscript. While an academic book can adapt to the idiosyncrasies of your style, a youth book in a series is part of a uniform set of documents. Think of the Hardy Boys—many authors, but the boys act the same in each. I would also have to note that the vast majority of edits helped slim down the book and seem justified in retrospect.

Many differences in the process were positive. Writing a book for youth audience can serve as a relief from one’s own academic specialization. As in many disciplines, the research for an academic book in history is extremely focused. But for a book for young people, you can explore a range of topics, without having to be an “expert” in any one of them. Questions I needed to research for my book included: How bad was the Chernobyl accident? What is the status of Iran’s nuclear program? How easy is it for a terrorist group to make a simple atomic weapon? There is something fun and rewarding about taking on big issues, sweeping changes, and far reaching consequences in such a book.

The book also allowed me to write with a broader sweep about both historical events and larger trends. Taking an international agency as the subject of a book forces you to think globally as an author and to fit regional issues into a larger framework. Most books about atomic history do not span an entire decade, so this project, from World War II to Gulf War II, stretched my historical muscles significantly. While the words and sentences used in a young adult book need to be straightforward, it does not mean that the ideas in it should be simple.

When my book proofs arrived, I had to admit I was impressed. The visuals added by the press popped from the page, and made the book much more exciting. The haunting photographs of Hiroshima, the picture of a menacing terrorist “seeking” nuclear weapons, and the unnerving images of Chernobyl, for example, all complemented the text and helped to make the book more interesting. There are not many times in your life as a history professor that a picture of a tragedy or a terrorist can seem significant, but at the last stage of finishing a nonacademic book, they suggested that the work might actually interest its audience, rather than sit on a lonesome school library shelf.

Russell Olwell is the author of The International Atomic Energy Agency, published by Chelsea House in 2008.