• How to make a living researching railroad history?

  • Discussion related to railroads/trains that show up in TV shows, commercials, movies, literature (books, poems and more), songs, the Internet, and more... Also includes discussion of well-known figures in the railroad industry or the rail enthusiast hobby.
Discussion related to railroads/trains that show up in TV shows, commercials, movies, literature (books, poems and more), songs, the Internet, and more... Also includes discussion of well-known figures in the railroad industry or the rail enthusiast hobby.

Moderator: Aa3rt

  by SPUI
I'm currently in college, majoring in urban studies. Once I leave, I'd like to do historical research about railroads and transportation in general, and presumably write books. How would I accomplish this? Thanks for any help.
  by eddiebear
Get a real job and write your books in your spare time. Despite the fascinating subject matter, it has limited interest. The people I know who write either have full time careers or are retired.

  by Bernard Rudberg
I spent 35 years working in IBM engineering before I could take time off to retire and write railroad books. So far my royalty checks are just about covering expenses.


  by csxvet
Amen to all of that. I've done several reasonably major railroad and traction history books -- serious stuff, not just pictorials. They've generally been pretty well received and have sold well enough, but once you write off the expenses for research (which usually involves travel), illustrations (and getting photo permissions from libraries, museums, and historical societies has become absurdly expensive), and a lot of other cats & dogs that seem to go with it, you're lucky to break even. All the same, it's very rewarding -- just not monetarily rewarding.

The same pretty much goes for lecturing or being a talking head on TV history programs. If it's public television, forget it.

One thing you might consider if you're a serious historian is to get a job teaching history and sneak in some railroad courses. Several profs I know do this, and have been successful at it. But it can be done only to a limited extent; the market will only bear so much.

  by Ken W2KB
One of my friends from high school is now one of the top science fiction and fantasy authors, with his current series having been on the New York Times best seller list. His advice to wannabe authors is that very few people are able to make a living as an author. Most have other jobs to rely on and if and when they (like my friend) become a success they then go full time on writing. F & SF has a much wider readership than RRs and its very tough to earn a living even in that genre.

College history professor or librarian would probably be a good fit for employment, and allow for time for writing.

  by csxvet
I'll just mention a few numbers to put RR history writing in perspective:

The typical run for a railroad history or railfan book seems to be about 3000 copies. (Yeah, if you're the late Stephen Amrose -- a difficult feat -- or even Maury Klein, you can count on larger runs, but they're hardly typical.)

Nowadays, publishers seem to be getting tight on royalties. The best that can be done is 10% on the _realized_ price -- that is, the price the publisher actually gets, not the retail price. Since the standard bookseller discount is 40% (with some variations, depending on quantity and whether the bookseller has return privileges), you can probably figure a royalty based on maybe 60% of list price. Furthermore, many publishers now (especially university presses, which I've most recently dealt with) have cut the royalty rate down to 5-6%.

OK, so you're getting, say, 6% on the realized price of 3000 copies of a book with a retail price of, say, $40. That gives you a glorious royalty (spread over several years) of $4320, to which you apply all your expenses. The good part, I guess, is that the expenses are deductible, so at least you won't have to worry much about income tax.

A few -- very few -- friends of mine are able to eke out a living as historical consultants. There seem to be an increasing number of historic restoration and preservation projects, many of them railroad-related, and these often require a detailed historical background to qualify for grants, state or federal historic register status, etc. Sometimes the pay isn't bad, but of course it's a feast or famine kind of business, and you have to establish some kind of reputation in the field before anyone asks your help.

So the bottom line of all this really goes back to the top response in this thread -- get a real job first, do your writing and/or lecturing on the side, and maybe -- just maybe -- you could work up to a paying job in the RR history field.

  by ACLfan
SPUI, I can certainly relate to your vocational desires! However, I also agree with the comments made by the other respondants.

I'm assuming that you have/will have a BA/BS degree in Urban Studies. If that is the case, I would suggest that you pursue a Masters Degree in Regional and Urban Planning. This strategy will provide you with an opportunity to earn a good living in a closely parallel professional field that should give you a lot of opportunities to integrate your passion with your professional skills, and vice versa!

Like said by the others, the problems are:

1. You MUST have experience in the field of historical research;

2. Lots of people are interested in getting historical information, but do not have the money to pay for it!;

3. Paying opportunities are few and far between! It would truly be a "feast or famine--mostly famine!" situation!;

4. A LOT of very good and highly qualified expertise currently exists in the membership of railroad historical societies, and these information sources are generally free for the asking! These highly-qualified freebees represent the major source of competition that you will be up against [Top-notch talent, and free!].
I have found from experience that many companies that are in need of detailed historical railroad-related information often contact a railroad historical society for professional assistance and/or information.

5. Establishing yourself in a closely parallel field, such as transportation planning or community development (historical preservation), will allow you to continue to develop your experience and expertise in the area of railroad-related historical research while " paying the mortgage bill and putting food on the table"; and

6. State-level agencies and regional planning councils generally represent the best opportunities for employment that will give you oppportunities to actually work in historical railroad research while being gainfully employed!

Best Wishes!

  by zz4
I have been getting curious about copyright issues.

Did the laws just change of recent internet era's?

All around the web are websites with copyright messages. Some would even scare just the surfer of the website. Some get more bazaar all the time. I've seen some claiming they have copyright to the html language.(any html..not a duplication of their site)

Then some of the boldest most scary copyright notice websites I'd swear 100% of information was snatched from elsewhere.

O-to this day they argue this copyright stuff 24/7 365 days a year just in legal messageboards.

Most commercial interests hate to admit it but present copyright law does have FAIR USE provision for non-commercial,non-profit,educational,research,etc. It specifically deals with using 'excerpts' (not whole works) WITHOUT getting permissions and giving CREDITS,etc.

I guess writing a book would be 'commercial'.

I've seen websites around forever that all content is simply borrowed from the web and nobody seems to care or complain.

Much...Many who post in messageboards like this ENJOY HISTOY. Most don't write books.

I have decades of photocopies. Much I have no idea of source. (this was before anybody even thought a photocopy machine was a tool for the criminal)

Who owns what I say here? The messageboard?

I hope somebody is following me and I'm not the only one in confusion about 2004 copyright and INFORMATION. Some think they OWN information even though it came from elsewhere.


I go to libraries and they are in total confusion. Some want to get rich on their 'information'.(what in past was free to the public) Most of coarse are still old fashioned friendly libraries.

I look at their historical collections and in many cases its not even theirs. Sell newspaper clippings when the newspaper still exists with its own archives?

This subject can go on forever. As I mentioned just start to surf 'legal messageboards' over copyright. It just goes on forever and nobody has the same opinion.(except a judge in a lawsuit?)

Then seems only lawsuits (2004 era) come from the 'Music Industry' or a couple multi-million dollar corporations in a fight over something.

If I wrote a book it would be nice to have expenses covered. I don't want to see my book 'duplicated'. BUT I could care less about some individual in the population quoting a few 'excerpts'.....

My question of questions....

In older days of book writing if the subject were something historical quite obviously most all content has to come from SOURCES. In my case say if it were pre-1950 I was not alive so? Write about frogs in Alaska during the 40's? I've gotta use sources.

Most books list CREDITS. Is that not about all a person can do? Do all CREDITS need permissions? I'd presume a good part of CREDITS are not even alive. Genealogy search?

As to PICTURES. It seems everybody likes pictures. I've seen the same identical pictures in different books and zero credits to anybody.

--- just trying to get educated....

Is it not confusing? Books written from sources but yet the authors don't ever want to be a SOURCE.

On the internet people want to own information and sell it. The same information they got from elsewhere.

The Hudson&Source Railroad ceased operation in 1927. How do they know that? If its from 'family tales or records' but most likely they read it from some book....OR......

© zz4 2004 No portions of this post may be copied by any means if it be verbal. The English Language here and any typo's under exclusive copyright. Consult author for royalty fee schedule. In addition all computer hard-drives must be deleted and restoration done as the copy you have in 'temporary files' or perhaps index.dat's is strictly illegal.

  by PD&EBuff
Seems like a really solid consensus. I think all that have responded here feel a certain affinity for the idea. Obviously, simply being an author is not enough to make a living, so lets think outside the box here. What about being the publisher? At the very least, the percentage that would have gone to the publisher would be added in. At the same time, you’d get the scoop on the research of others which would help inspire you to do yours. Anybody have any viewpoints on that?

  by walt
If you're not Simon and Schuster, forget it. Though those who actually have written and published railroad oriented books will have better information, I suspect that there are as many railroad specialty publishers out there, right now, as the field can handle. This is kind of like being a record producer--- we see the "top end" of the business, and think "I can do that!". But how many erstwhile record producers disappear after one or two efforts never to be heard from again!.
The advice to continue your education and to seek employment in your field, hopefully in a transportation related aspect, is the best advice you can be given.
  by Otto Vondrak
SPUI wrote:I'm currently in college, majoring in urban studies. Once I leave, I'd like to do historical research about railroads and transportation in general, and presumably write books. How would I accomplish this? Thanks for any help.
Ask Brian Solomon. You have to be prolific and articulate and dedicated.
  by SSW9389
Incredibly informative post here. I have a manuscript at a railroad book publisher now for his review. There are some bridges here in this topic that I may have to cross very soon. Thanks for all the insight.

You have to have a burning passion to write anything like a book. Historical research takes a lot of time to do it correctly. If you rehash what has been done before you may not have the complete history and may be repeating mistakes others have made before you. Dig, dig, dig like the miner digging for gold. You will finds bits of color here and there. You may discover things that have been hidden for a long time and bring them into the light.

I will make a comment here about writing something that is cross genre. A story that is not completely a railroad book, but has strong railroad history elements in it, but has a more universal appeal than a purely historical railroad book. :wink:

Ed Cooper
unpublished author of
Cotton Belt Engineer: The Life and Times of C. W. "Red" Standefer 1898-1981
  by Otto Vondrak
I have a couple of books and many published articles under my belt... but I'm far from making a living. It's mostly beer money and christmas gift fund.

If you have the time and capability, you have to be able to reach a wide audience, and have a publishing company willing to contract you to write so many books a year. They design the books and market them.

You could also self-publish. Cuts out the middle-man. But then you have to hire a competent designer and marketing staff.

Good luck!
  by mxdata
Most of the people I know who write articles and railroad books either have a full time job doing something else and find some time for writing as a hobby, or they are retired and use the hobby writing as a means to supplement their retirement income while covering deductible travel and expenses for research. Only a few are full time authors and they do mainly picture books that don't require a lot of research time.

Most of the people I know who used to do public speaking and lectures aren't doing much of it any more. The summertime travel expenses in recent years have been too high to justify expensive trips considering the relatively small number of people who get to see the programs, particularly since many of the sponsors of events in this hobby don't make much effort at promotion. Look for increasing numbers of local presenters at future events.

Authors who write railroad books seldom make enough in royalties to justify going long distances for personal appearances. Authors who write magazine articles may not do public appearance events at all, their articles usually get paid "up front" and traveling to promote them generally provides no benefit to the author.

  by mikeexplorer
I have been told by several people I should do railroad research "for a living" I don't think so. I started 5 years ago looking into the history of the many abandoned railroad lines in my area and walking and photographing any remains. I do it for a hobby and a great way to get outside and walk. Maybe some day the pictures I took will be of value, but I won't hold my breath.

I do it for run an recreation and I like it that way.