How to get a history book deal

Book being read; B. Caven, Dionysius I: War-Lord of Sicily, (1990)

In January last year (2013) I gave up full time work to become a stay at home Dad. At the same time my wife convinced me to go back to my PhD which I had put into hiatus with the arrival of my daughter (2012). After 6 months of trying, I made the decision that the academic world was not for me, nor I for it, and with the support of my supervisor decided to bring the venture to an early close.

So, it was the middle of 2013 and the very life I had in mind, the dreams I had held since a little kid, about being an historian and researching anything and everything I wanted – teaching these ideas, challenging the perceptions of smart-alec students – all of it was gone in the blink of an eye. Needless to say, I got a bit down about it. It was a moment where the direction my life had been heading for over 10 years was suddenly changed to an unchartered course, with no destination to speak of.

After a month of moping, my wife, as she often does, told be stop being a prat and to start doing more freelance work. So I did, and as I mentioned in an earlier blog I received an email from Pen & Sword asking me if I would be interested in writing a book for them (I can mention them now that I have been given the contracts).

So, the big question: how do you get to this point? How do you get a history book deal?

Well, firstly you will notice that I did not approach them. So I cannot really help you there, if you already have a manuscript and are looking for a publisher all I can say is that; agents are harder to impress than editors; most historical editors are obsessed with history and love to talk about it, so get talking; finally you must know why your book will stand out. Other than that I can only wish you good luck.

However, there is another approach which I, and another historian friend of mine, Jon Kaneko-James*, have both taken (by happenstance rather than design). So here it is, my list of things to get going:

– Get writing and get seen. Get a blog, have a twitter account, or whatever, and get writing. It is much easier to get work if people can see what you can do, even if it is on a small scale, it is enough. Go to unpaid reference websites, like Ancient History Encyclopaedia, and offer your services – tell them your interests, your knowledge, background and education (if relevant – don’t feel held back by not having a degree, or ‘only’ a bachelors).

– Approach editors with questions, and solutions. Email editors of magazines (the easiest way to start in freelance) for their editorial plans for the future, suggest articles that fit into a theme that is up and coming and convince them that it is important (I have had one magazine stop itself from being declared finished because I convinced them that it had to have my article in it).

– Don’t be afraid of start-up enterprises. As long as your work is out there, and there is no scam involved, then take a gamble as it might well pay-off. I began talking with the editor of Medieval Warfare Magazine, very early on in its formation, and have been able to nurture a great relationship which, I hope, benefits him as much as me.

– Create a rapport with Magazine editors, they do remember you. I have ended up with a lot of work my way because the editors know and trust me – and we have never even met!

-NEVER TURN DOWN WORK! I have never turned down a history commission offered to me. Do the book reviews for free, fill in for historians who have had to pull out, take commissions on topics you know only a bit about; just make sure you are an expert by the time you are writing it.

– Once you have found an area you can write about, and can keep getting work in – just keep doing it. Start with one or two magazines to begin with, and then once you have a good relationship with them add more titles to your name, without forgetting those who gave you your chance in the first place! Just keep writing on the same areas. For me it is warfare, for Jon it is witchcraft/ghost stories/demonology*, become known and others will find you.

-Have an internet presence. My website has repaid itself in just the receipt of that one email that has come from Pen & Sword. It should be easy for people to find you.

– If, or when, a book editor does come knocking, do not be timid – know what you want, but also be aware that s/he will have ideas and gaps that need filling in her/his mind. If they suggest a topic that you feel you can do, say yes and then talk about your own research interests as well. You will find that many commissioning editors don’t want a one off author but to establish a long-term and fruitful relationship – I have already thrown 5 other book ideas by mine, for the future, so they won’t surprise him when I finally submit proposals in the next few years.

-Network. Academics, writers, editors, war gamers, re-enactors – they all love to talk and they all love to give their opinions. Many of them even like to hear yours! Send emails with questions they can help with, talk at lectures and conferences, just talk! Remember, they don’t get to talk about their work as much as you may think!

Other than that, good luck. And get in touch, my network could always do with growing.


*a very nice, and very strange guy, who knows everything there is to know about the history of esoteric matters

This entry was posted in Ancient History & My Research, History on the Internet and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How to get a history book deal

  1. Jon Kaneko-James says:

    Hi there, I’m the Jon K-J mentioned above, and I’d just like to reiterate everything Owen has said.

    I write both fiction and non-fiction, and although I’m far from being Stephen King, I do have publishing deals in both spheres. Neither of them came from the futile grind of cold-selling that is the whole “Buy writers and artists yearbook–>send out begging letters that justify your existence to bored and overworked agents/publishers–>repeat” grind that used to be the way of doing things.

    Get yourself out there. Do things PROPERLY. Meet new people. If you have to find a non-paying site or magazine to write for, do it. There are lots of “I am an artist, so I don’t work for free” memes on Facebook, but none of those have the same value as when my editor at one site (who had never paid me) introduced me to my publisher (who is paying me) with the words, “This is Jon, he’s very good.” I pitched my book in an Italian restaurant a few hours later and made the deal on paper a couple of weeks after that. This was the direct result of a couple of dozen non-paid articles, and I still continue to do that sort of thing, because you don’t drop people once they’ve done you that sort of favour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *