I just found this 2003 interview on the subject of how one academician down under (Iain McCalman) collaborated with his American trade house (HarperCollins) to convert a scholarly study into a work of pop history.
Ever wonder how that happens? Why an ACW book is story-driven, filled with caricatures, and plot devices, and simplistic finality? Why your North/South tome reads like it was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs? Have a look:
My kindly New York editor sent back the first draft of The Seven Ordeals with the words, "Now, here is Iain McCalman’s eighth ordeal: to turn a rich study into a compelling story."The editor knows what he wants:
In order to realise a complete historical world for my readers, he said, I must learn to paint word pictures as if I’d actually witnessed the events. To achieve a complete suspension of disbelief, I must avoid soaring into abstract analysis or assuming prior knowledge in the reader, or casting doubts on the reliability of my sources. I must work chronologically rather than thematically; I must produce a rounded historical life, however complex or haphazard that life might have been, yet I must never be boring, repetitive or anti-climatic. Suspense must be sustained until the very last page. Most disquieting of all, I must speak, it seemed, with the certainty of a god-figure who knew exactly what had happened in the past, even though the past is, at many levels, completely unknowable.I'm surprised he went on with the project after asking himself these questions:
The cost of popularising seemed too high. Did I have to gloss over history’s inevitable partiality and incompleteness? Did I have to give up representing the numerous perspectives that are always present in any historical account? Did I have to lose my sense of the contingency and uncertainty that surrounds human motive and behaviour?As the central figure of his book is known only through the reports of his enemies, the author decides to structure parallel narratives from the viewpoints of those enemies:
In the end, my American publishers accepted my unorthodox structure but not without resistances, which brought home to me some of the perils of popularising. They were troubled by my ambiguity and pressed me to make a more emphatic commitment against Cagliostro [i.e., against the central historical figure of this book]. They ... retained a persistent confusion as to whether I was writing history or fiction. They didn’t seem to understand that my dialogue and descriptions were taken strictly from primary sources, and they couldn’t be altered to improve the story. They were baffled when I refused to change quoted words...That was my emphasis added.
And though it was exhilarating to be connected to a giant public relations and marketing machine of the largest press in the world, I quickly discovered some brutal realities. ...my New York editor failed to persuade the marketeers in his own company that [the project was] worthy of serious investment. They cut the US print run in half, withdrew it from the big book chains and insisted on a title change to The Last Alchemist that made nonsense of my structure. They then came up with a matching cover image of the wizened alchemist with a long white beard.At the trade level, the sales and marketing staff have a major say in project budgets, of course.
The message was clear: whether in books or films, the mass market shuns originality and difference. Afraid to jeopardise its investment, it seeks out the well-trodden path, the previously confirmed winner. This is the harshest lesson that a would-be Australian populariser must learn.That anyone can learn. And that may be why the grossly inadequate Centennial histories of Williams, Nevins, Catton, Sears, and McPherson are endlessly repackaged into new projects that try to tell the same story better.