Me and Johnny Cash, Part IV: Cash and Cash

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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, 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.

Marching Masters: The Agony and Ecstasy of the Amazon Ranking

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By Colin Woodward

Last week, the Central Arkansas Library System put out an annual report in which it noted the top ten authors in terms of people who had borrowed his/her book in the past year. Five of the top ten spots were held by James Patterson. Others in the top ten included Steven Baldacci, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovitch, and John Grisham, if memory serves.

James Patterson has sold an astonishing 300 million books. Yes, 300 million. As things stand, I’m only about 299, 999, 600 copies away from Patterson.

Look out, Jim. I’m coming for you. Soon, every 60 year old on the beach will be carrying my book.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there actually was no James Patterson, that in fact he is the creation of some supercomputer run by a team of twelve snarky graduate students at Berkeley, who are working on a study about how to get artificial intelligence to write popular fiction. The professor in charge of the project (real name: Klaus Schreiber) is the one who does the public appearances.

James Patterson, aka Klaus Schreiber

All props to Patterson’s sales figures. But I can’t even name one book he has written. I’m no fan of Stephen King, but I could name a lot of his books. And his movies. Same for Grisham. Nevertheless, we need a James Patterson. We need people who write paper books that “average” humans will read.

I’d love to have Patterson’s time and resource to write full time. But, even if I did, I wouldn’t write beach books. I’d want to be Hemingway or Graham Greene or Bukowski-lite.

I’ve been to Hemingway’s house in Key West. Patterson lives in Palm Beach. I’ve been to West Palm Beach. I prefer Key West.

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Hemingway’s house: sunny and lush, just like Papa.

The writing of a university press book is not a lucrative business. My first royalty check was so small that my publisher declined to write me one (and would only do so after I had cleared $50, thank you).

The only good way to check the progress of a book on a daily or weekly basis is by way of the amazon ranking. Now, amazon, of course, is not the only book seller. There’s Barnes and Noble and countless small retailers. But amazon at least gives you a good idea of whether or not  your book is selling well.

For academics, you will be lucky to crack the top 200,000 in books on any given day. Once, I was in the top 100,000. That might not sound great, but there are millions of books available on amazon. Getting into the top 200,000 assures you will be in the top 100 for books in a Civil War category–in my case, the Confederacy.

Apparently, though, there isn’t much separation between authors on amazon. The selling of one or two books can send you rocketing toward the top of the charts. Conversely, your rank can plummet in a few hours. Yesterday, I was ranked at around 1.3 million in amazon books. Today, I’m back in the top quarter-million.

The head swells. The head shrinks. For me, the goal is to get to the paperback. By then, I might even get a royalty check.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

The Writing Machine


By Colin Woodward

I thought I’d get a break after publishing my book.

Marching Masters came out in March, and since then, I’ve been something of a writing machine. The ink was hardly dry on my book when I got an email saying I needed to overhaul an article I had submitted four years ago for a collection of essays on slavery and historiography. The essay needed much reworking, which included plenty of new research and the revising of prose. I still don’t even know if it’ll be accepted. The final essay came in at 35 pages, with about 100 footnotes.

On top of that, I had already agreed to write two book reviews for the Arkansas Review, two entries for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas (on Buddy Jewel and Gene Williams, both of Dyess), an article on Johnny Cash and Cummins prison farm for the Pulaski County Historical Review, and an article on Cash and Winthrop Rockefeller for the Arkansas Times.

Thankfully, being a historian cuts down on the tendency toward writer’s block. And even though I don’t get paid much for writing, I love doing it.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.