History publishing – between trade and academic

I have a new book out this week. Hooray! Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome is the second of two books based on my doctoral and post-doctoral research. The first one, Our Man in Rome (aka The Divorce of Henry VIII) came out in 2012. There’s a big difference in publishing terms between these two: Diplomacy in Renaissance Rome is an academic monograph and The Divorce of Henry VIII is a trade history book. But from a historian’s point of view what does that mean? Here follows my quick guide:

Academic books are generally expected to sell to a small and specialist audience, primarily university libraries and a limited number of academics who’ll fork out the cover price (usually minus a decent discount that you get by writing for the same press or being at the right conference). It isn’t unusual to sell fewer than a thousand copies. Trade books are aimed at a general readership and are expected to sell much more widely, into the tens of thousands.

That basic difference is reflected in the pricing: academic monographs often cost £60-100 while trade books might start in hardback at £20-30 and then come out for less than a tenner in paperback. (This is the UK market: it’s somewhat different in the USA, but that’s another blog post!)

The good news is that if you can convince a publisher your book can sell widely then you can get paid for writing a trade book. Trade non-fiction history is unlikely to make you rich (check out these depressing figures for authors’ median earnings). But it can be a source of income and/or cover substantial research expenses. Academic publishers may pay a small percentage royalty but they operate essentially on the basis that your income is coming from an academic salary. A senior academic (who shall remain nameless) once asked me why I’d done the trade book first. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘they were paying me.’

The publication processes are different too. Academic presses are open to direct submission from authors: you send in your proposal and off you go. Your proposal may be peer-reviewed, or you may be invited on the proposal alone to submit a full manuscript. That’ll then be read by other experts in your field; then you submit revisions; then it goes for copy-editing and proof-reading.

Some smaller trade publishers accept direct submissions, but the major ones expect you to find a literary agent first, who will then pitch your work on your behalf. Trade presses don’t do peer-review (you can of course organise it informally), but you can expect much more substantial editorial work on your book (requests to restructure, to add background, to clarify sections for non-experts and so forth) before the copy-editing and proof-reading. Without peer-review they also work to a much faster schedule – more than a year faster in my case!

The marketing process is another contrast. Academic book marketing tends to focus on getting your book reviewed in scholarly journals and in promoting it to university librarians and academics through catalogues. Trade book marketing involves newspaper reviews, radio interviews, literary festivals and (in short) a lot more work and public profile on your part.

One consideration for people working in academia will be: can I put a trade book in for the REF? If it’s based on original research and properly referenced, no reason why not. My first book was submitted and double-weighted, and I know of other similar cases. Trade books can also be a route to impact, though just showing lots of people have read your work isn’t enough.

Got other questions? Comment below or tweet me your queries!


6 thoughts on “History publishing – between trade and academic

  1. This is very helpful, thank you. I am thinking about publishing original academic work as a trade book because it would have broad appeal so thank you for clarifying about REF. Did you publish any of the research in your trade book as academic articles first? Would you advise this as a way of getting more from the research? And are academic journals generally ok with things being used as part of bigger book projects? Thank you!


    1. Thanks for the comment! Yes, I had two journal articles published before the trade book came out. I was trying to get an academic job at the time, so it was helpful to have the articles while I was waiting for the book (and they confirmed that I could publish in that style as well as writing trade). It’s also a useful thing to do if you have more theoretical/conceptual material that’s too heavyweight for a trade book. Journals rarely have a problem with it (though some ask you to wait a year or two before reuse). The exception would be if you have an exciting piece of new research that’s going to be key in marketing the trade book: it’s probably not a good idea to publish this in a journal first (though you could potentially publish a fuller academic discussion afterwards).


      1. Thank you for such a helpful reply, I’ve been feeling pretty clueless about this! Do you have any advice on making decisions about what to keep as marketable new research for the trade book? I think I’ll have smaller bits that could be articles first, they also are important evidence for the big “marketable” argument, but could probably be tackled in isolation from it as articles. Is that the kind of approach you’d suggest? In otherwords keeping the broader argument of the book separate and holding back material that would relate closely to that? Thank you again!


      2. This is a tricky question to answer in the abstract but as a rule of thumb I’d say if the findings are important enough that they might feature in newspaper coverage then you should hold them back.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s