Getting into trade history writing

After my post last week on the relationship between academic and public history, a few people asked about the practicalities of getting into writing history for a broad audience. So here are some tips. I’ve focused here on the process of writing for the large publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Faber, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster etc.) rather than for niche specialist publishers because that’s what I know about.

First, trade publishers are running a business, so you need to think about whether your topic is likely to sell to the general public. Can you see your non-academic friends buying it as a gift for a relative’s birthday (and not just because they’re your mates)? Have you got a hook that will interest a browser in a bookshop based on a few lines of cover blurb? You’ll often find trade books combining familiarity and novelty in some way, giving a new take on a well-known historical figure or event. In practice that means a lot of books with a link in to World Wars, revolutions, royalty, presidents, prime ministers, and so forth. There’s also a big market for wide-ranging general or thematic histories, as a quick look at the history shelves of a local bookshop will reveal. Again these are typically introduced as novel in some way.

Some examples:

  • My own first book, Our Man in Rome, had a new perspective on the well-known first divorce of Henry VIII by virtue of being told from the point of view of Henry’s ambassador in Rome rather than from England.
  • In Thunder At Twilight: Vienna 1913-14, Frederic Morton uses the intriguing fact that Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Freud and Stalin were all in the same place at the same time as a starting point for his history of the city in the run-up to the First World War. Again: something you didn’t know, plus a familiar event.
  • Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class is pitched as an account of hitherto-untold lives of three-quarters of the population, and a history that the author didn’t hear in her university history classes. A familiar topic (social class) but the promise of a new take.

‘New’ to a publisher, by the way, means new to a large majority of general readers, not new to a niche of experts.

If you think you have an idea that will work for a broad audience, then the next step is to get a literary agent. The big publishers do not accept direct submissions from authors. (Some smaller niche history publishers do, but I’ll leave the advantages/disadvantages of those to someone more familiar with them.) Agencies vary considerably but as you look at lists of authors they already represent you’ll see that some have more of a track record of working in the academic-trade crossover market than others (e.g. mine, Felicity Bryan Associates). Personal recommendation from someone familiar with your work is one way to make contact with an agent (this was my route), but you can also send a proposal following the guidance for submissions on the agency’s website. Do follow the guidance.

Once you have an agent interested in your book, you then prepare a full proposal. This will typically include a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis plus a sample chapter to show your writing style. Your agent will give you feedback on the proposal, and once you’re both happy it will go out to publishers. Unlike academic publishing, where submitting to more than one publisher at a time is frowned on, your agent may well send the proposal to several publishers at the same time, with a deadline for offers, in effect an auction. Publishers may want to meet you before they make an offer, and this is your chance to see if you are happy with their understanding of your plans.

Assuming you have a publisher interested, your agent then negotiates the advance on royalties (if you’ve got more than one offer, this is an opportunity for the agent to bargain them up). As with academic publishing, the idea is that you get a share of the profits. But unlike academic publishing, with trade publishing you get a guaranteed chunk of royalties ahead of publication, and even if your book doesn’t sell as well as you might hope the advance is yours to keep. The advance is usually split into four parts: first on signature (when you sign the contract), second on delivery (when you deliver the final revised version of the book), third on hardback publication and fourth on paperback publication. Your agent gets a percentage of the royalties for her work.

At this point I should say that almost no-one makes a living exclusively from non-fiction writing. Everyone I know personally in this world combines it with an academic job, with broadcasting or TV consultancy, with journalism or some other source of income (like a partner’s salary, as this excellent post discusses).

You then go off and write the book. Unlike academic publishing, there is no peer review unless you organise it informally yourself (which I recommend!) But there is editorial review – much more so than you get in academic publishing – and you should expect detailed comments from an editor on structure, narrative style, requesting clarifications… I know some academic colleagues have been surprised by the degree of intervention from editors. You then go on to copy-editing and proof-reading (both, in my experience, to an excellent standard) and finally your book goes to press.

The next stage is the publicity, and some effort on your part here is expected. Reviews are important for sales, as are media interviews and appearances. You may be asked to write articles or blog posts linked to your book, or to travel to literary festivals. All this takes time and may require some negotiation if you also have another job to do, but doing an Elena Ferrante is really not an option unless you are, in fact, Elena Ferrante.

There’s also the possibility of further money to come, through the sale of translation rights to your book (in the initial round your agent will probably sell either World English Rights to a single publisher or split the UK and US rights and sell them to different publishers) and also through sale of rights for TV/radio adaptation. If your book does well, you may ‘earn out’ your advance and begin to receive further royalties.

Finally, once you have one book out, there’s Book Two to talk about. Both agents and publishers are looking for authors they can work with long term. And that should be a consideration, too, when you’re starting out. Expect the people around you to be interested in your future plans, and think about them yourself.

Image by Stewart Butterfield (flickr), used under a CC BY 2.0 licence via Wikimedia Commons.


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