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Writing History: An Introductory Guide to How History Is Produced
What is history.
Most people believe that history is a "collection of facts about the past." This is reinforced through the use of textbooks used in teaching history. They are written as though they are collections of information. In fact, history is NOT a "collection of facts about the past." History consists of making arguments about what happened in the past on the basis of what people recorded (in written documents, cultural artifacts, or oral traditions) at the time. Historians often disagree over what "the facts" are as well as over how they should be interpreted. The problem is complicated for major events that produce "winners" and "losers," since we are more likely to have sources written by the "winners," designed to show why they were heroic in their victories.
History in Your Textbook
Many textbooks acknowledge this in lots of places. For example, in one book, the authors write, "The stories of the conquests of Mexico and Peru are epic tales told by the victors. Glorified by the chronicles of their companions, the conquistadors, or conquerors, especially Hernán Cortés (1485-1547), emerged as heroes larger than life." The authors then continue to describe Cortés ’s actions that ultimately led to the capture of Cuauhtómoc, who ruled the Mexicas after Moctezuma died. From the authors’ perspective, there is no question that Moctezuma died when he was hit by a rock thrown by one of his own subjects. When you read accounts of the incident, however, the situation was so unstable, that it is not clear how Moctezuma died. Note: there is little analysis in this passage. The authors are simply telling the story based upon Spanish versions of what happened. There is no interpretation. There is no explanation of why the Mexicas lost. Many individuals believe that history is about telling stories, but most historians also want answers to questions like why did the Mexicas lose?
What Are Primary Sources?
To answer these questions, historians turn to primary sources, sources that were written at the time of the event, in this case written from 1519-1521 in Mexico. These would be firsthand accounts. Unfortunately, in the case of the conquest of Mexico, there is only one genuine primary source written from 1519-1521. This primary source consists of the letters Cortés wrote and sent to Spain. Other sources are conventionally used as primary sources, although they were written long after the conquest. One example consists of the account written by Cortés ’s companion, Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Other accounts consist of Mexica and other Nahua stories and traditions about the conquest of Mexico from their point of view.
Making Arguments in the Textbook
Historians then use these sources to make arguments, which could possibly be refuted by different interpretations of the same evidence or the discovery of new sources. For example, the Bentley and Ziegler textbook make several arguments on page 597 about why the Spaniards won:
"Steel swords, muskets, cannons, and horses offered Cortés and his men some advantage over the forces they met and help to account for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire".
"Quite apart from military technology, Cortés' expedition benefited from divisions among the indigenous peoples of Mexico."
"With the aid of Doña Marina, the conquistadors forged alliances with peoples who resented domination by the Mexicas, the leaders of the Aztec empire...."
Ideally, under each of these "thesis statements," that is, each of these arguments about why the Mexicas were defeated, the authors will give some examples of information that backs up their "thesis." To write effective history and history essays, in fact to write successfully in any area, you should begin your essay with the "thesis" or argument you want to prove with concrete examples that support your thesis. Since the Bentley and Ziegler book does not provide any evidence to back up their main arguments, you can easily use the material available here to provide evidence to support your claim that any one of the above arguments is better than the others. You could also use the evidence to introduce other possibilities: Mocteuzuma's poor leadership, Cortés' craftiness, or disease.
Become a Critical Reader
To become a critical reader, to empower yourself to "own your own history," you should think carefully about whether the evidence the authors provide does in fact support their theses. Since the Bentley and Ziegler book provides only conclusions and not much evidence to back up their main points, you may want to explore your class notes on the topic and then examine the primary sources included on the Conquest of Mexico on this web site.
Your Assignment for Writing History with Primary Sources
There are several ways to make this a successful assignment. First, you might take any of the theses presented in the book and use information from primary sources to disprove it—the "trash the book" approach. Or, if your professor has said something in class that you are not sure about, find material to disprove it—the "trash the prof" approach (and, yes, it is really okay if you have the evidence ). Another approach is to include new information that the authors ignored . For example, the authors say nothing about omens. If one analyzes omens in the conquest, will it change the theses or interpretations presented in the textbook? Or, can one really present a Spanish or Mexica perspective? Another approach is to make your own thesis, i.e., one of the biggest reasons for the conquest was that Moctezuma fundamentally misunderstood Cortés.
When Sources Disagree
If you do work with the Mexican materials, you will encounter the harsh reality of historical research: the sources do not always agree on what happened in a given event. It is up to you, then, to decide who to believe. Most historians would probably believe Cortés’ letters were the most likely to be accurate, but is this statement justified? Cortés was in the heat of battle and while it looked like he might win easy victory in 1519, he did not complete his mission until 1521. The Cuban Governor, Diego Velázquez wanted his men to capture Cortés and bring him back to Cuba on charges of insubordination. Was he painting an unusually rosy picture of his situation so that the Spanish King would continue to support him? It is up to you to decide. Have the courage to own your own history! Díaz Del Castillo wrote his account later in his life, when the Spaniards were being attacked for the harsh policies they implemented in Mexico after the conquest. He also was upset that Cortés' personal secretary published a book that made it appear that only Cortés was responsible for the conquest. There is no question that the idea of the heroic nature of the Spanish actions is clearest in his account. But does this mean he was wrong about what he said happened and why? It is up to you to decide. The Mexica accounts are the most complex since they were originally oral histories told in Nahuatl that were then written down in a newly rendered alphabetic Nahuatl. They include additional Mexica illustrations of their version of what happened, for painting was a traditional way in which the Mexicas wrote history. Think about what the pictures tell us. In fact, a good paper might support a thesis that uses a picture as evidence. Again, how reliable is this material? It is up to you to decide.
One way to think about the primary sources is to ask the questions: (1) when was the source written, (2) who is the intended audience of the source, (3) what are the similarities between the accounts, (4) what are the differences between the accounts, (5) what pieces of information in the accounts will support your thesis, and (6) what information in the sources are totally irrelevant to the thesis or argument you want to make.
How to Write a History Book
May 10th, 2018 - By Patrick T. McBriarty
Each author has her or his own approach, but the trick to writing a book is trusting the process. As Hemingway advised a young writer, “the first draft of anything is shit!” explaining that the real work comes in the revising, rewriting, and reworking of a manuscript as many as forty, maybe fifty times, to get to the finished product.
For many writers, myself included, the first draft can be the hardest to complete, even though it is rarely where the bulk of the time lies. It is difficult because it means turning off one’s internal editor, eschewing expectations, and silencing your ego to get something, anything, however bad, on the page. Trying to make it good, let alone great, out of the gate is neigh impossible and just slows or can kill the process before it even begins. The desire for perfection at the onset just causes procrastination or at worst writer’s block.
Though my friends may beg to differ, I do not really consider myself creative. So my process leans heavily on research, often gathered over the course of several years, regularly immersing myself for days, weeks, and ideally, months at a time in original sources, secondary books, and related topics to develop a story. Intensive immersion gets much of the material in your head to encourage long jags of writing (and editing) so the words and ideas can flow and pour out. This is ideal when there are little or no interruptions externally, or internally – like feeling the need to look things up or fumbling with gaps in the story. In early drafts one trick I use to minimize internal interruptions is to quickly identify a gap and move on. I do this by simply acknowledging to myself, “I don’t know this part,” and make a note in the text like, [check this], [look this up], or [source?] to leave it behind and keep on with the flow of writing. By making these notes in bold and brackets they are easy to pick off and deal with later during an edit review.
Finding or choosing a story can be a topic unto itself, but in short, find something that resonates or is fascinating to you. It should be something you want to be associated with and champion. Remember you will be stuck with it a long time, even after the book is finished. Some people fall in and out of love with particular ideas more easily than others, so knowing yourself helps in choosing the “right” topic, idea, or story. Ideally it has many facets for staying power with new avenues to meander keeping and it interesting. I view writing as a process for thinking deeply and means of refining thoughts, concepts, and ideas, so choose something you enjoy and feel strongly about.
For my current project, of the approximately one-hundred whites in Chicago in 1812, most were killed or died in captivity after the Battle of Fort Dearborn. The incident occurred on August 15, 1812, on Chicago’s lakefront. The Indians looted the abandoned fort and burned it down the next day. Unfortunately, very little Native American perspective on events in Chicago were recorded due to oral traditions (i.e. no recorded history) and aggravated relations of the times. Few white survivors had the luxury of carrying documents and very few made it back to civilization. Thus, primary accounts are rare and correspondence to individuals outside of Indian Country (as the young United States called much of the new Territories) are the next best source.
The thrill of the hunt and fact very few people are willing and lack the time or patience to do exhaustive research keeps me going – along with a dogged curiosity and focus. Compounding the “fun” of history is the shift in use of the English language requiring an understanding of cryptic no-longer used phrasing, unexplained contextual inferences, and old word connotations. People of the early-1800s placed great importance on personal reputation and propriety so letters are rarely direct or plain spoken. Thus, the struggle is to quickly identify unsaid meanings and inferences that were quite clear in their day. The juicy bits of inferred nuances, alarm, scandal, indignity, or impropriety help create a good story.
Detective work also pieces together social networks, relationships, and alliances of the cast of characters and supporting players to better interpret a collection. Thankfully by 1812, most of the movers and shakers did read and write. They interacted, traveled widely, and corresponded with military officers, government officials, family, and friends elsewhere. Finding the resulting documents may uncover items that have never before been published. And a methodical approach almost invariably results in the discovery of a new, untold history. As the research winds down, the real work of writing begins to sort and piece together the collection into your own words. In telling and retelling the story the ideas emerge and become refined to be consumed by an audience, so I also find it very helpful to talk about a project well before it is finished. That is how (my) history books are created.
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noun trun·nion \ ˈtrən-yən \
a pin or pivot on which something is supported.
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300 Structure/organization of website for The Essential Guide to Writing History (or whatever we’re calling it) by Katherine Pickering Antonova
This website offers tools for instructors who want to use The Essential Guide to Writing History Papers , Oxford University Press, 2019 in their classrooms. The resources provided here help instructors to incorporate the book into any course. It includes sample assignments and grading rubrics with numbered references to book sections, so that it can be integrated into a content course with little or no direct writing instruction, as well as skeleton syllabi , scaffolded exercises, and workshop plans for a writing-focused seminar. The website and book together are also ideal for use in teaching preparation for doctoral-level graduate students.
The FAQ is a good place to start, followed by Syllabus Planning
About the book:
The Essential Guide to Writing History Papers is a step-by-step guide to the typical assignments of any North American history program at the undergraduate or master’s level: response papers, short-answer and analytical exam essays, historiography and book reviews, primary source interpretations, research projects, and imaginative essays. Each section contains prose explanations, exercises, and examples, individually numbered for easy reference in course materials and classroom exercises. Reading and specialized vocabulary are integrated with writing and revision throughout the book. Sections on research address the evolving nature of digital media while teaching the terms and logic of traditional sources and the reasons for citation as well as the styles.
The book is appropriate for studentsof any skill level, from those who struggle with the basics to those honing advanced skills such as learning how to comment effectively on others’ work.
The book is guided by the following principles: that effective writing is a process of discovery, achieved through the continual act of making choiceswhat to include or exclude, how to order elements, how to choose the right wordsand that these choices must be made according to the author’s goals for each piece and awareness of the intended audience.
These principles determine the structure of the book. Each chapter is devoted to one assignment type and begins with the goals that define that assignment, then follows the process of preparing, drafting, revising, and proofreading an essay, but the specific strategies and complexity of each of these steps varies depending on the assignment type.
This approach to writing is intended to help students produce an effective final product through a step-by-step series of instructions with examples and exercises and to build from simple, short essays to full research theses. It also aims to teach students why and how an essay is effective, thus empowering them to approach new writing challenges with the freedom to find their own voice while grounded in the mastery of a broad range of tools and strategies.
Integration of this book into courses should free faculty from devoting already overburdened class and advising time to writing instruction while making expectations clearer and more consistent for students.
The Oxford Guide to Writing History Papers responds to several urgent needs in higher education today. Students at every level and institution are less prepared for successful academic writing than ever, and Composition Studies research has seen the positive outcomes from interdisciplinary freshman writing courses drop off as students move on in their programs. Current best practice emphasizes Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) the concept that direct writing instruction and substantive writing requirements should continue throughout a student’s program in any discipline--and Writing in the Disciplines (WID)the idea that writing instruction in a student’s major should focus on specific disciplinary norms, vocabulary, and methods as well as building on interdisciplinary basics of rhetoric and style. The Oxford Guide to Writing History Papers meets these needs for history departments.
About the author
Katherine Pickering Antonova is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, City University of New York and author of An Ordinary Marriage: The World of a Gentry Family in Provincial Russia (Oxford, 2013). She is the founder of a freshman disciplinary writing course at Queens College, “Writing and History,” and was trained as a teaching fellow in the Columbia University Writing Program, where she also founded and organized the Undergraduate History Writing Workshop. The Oxford Guide to Writing History Papers is the culmination of eighteen years of classroom experience and experimentation in writing history.
- © 2011
How to Write History that People Want to Read
- Ann Curthoys 0 ,
- Ann McGrath 1
University of Sydney, Australia
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Australian National University, Australia
- Table of contents
About this book
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Table of contents (13 chapters)
Front matter, introduction.
- Ann Curthoys, Ann McGrath
Which history to tell?
Who is your history for, crying in the archives, history in 3d, how to avoid writer’s block, once upon a time, narrative, plot, action, styling pasts for presents, character and emotion, footnote fetishism, back matter.
- 21st century
- history of literature
'A really excellent book. It is written in a bright, informal style with some hard-and-fast rules balanced with advice, warning and very positive encouragement.' Alan Atkinson, author of The Europeans in Australia
'This witty little volume reveals the tricks and tips of the profession and recounts endearing anecdotes about the authors' own experiences as historians. A delightful read, this is also a seriously good advice manual. Refreshing, sensitive, thorough, here are two wise women who practise what they preach.' Philippa Levine, author of The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset
'Historians of all kinds, whether scholars, students or commercial authors, all share a wish to maximise their publics: this lively and practical primer will tell them how. Lucid, unpretentious and punchy, it is crammed with sage advice, shrewd criticism and dozens of samples of compelling history writing.' Iain McCalman, author of Darwin's Armada
Book Title : How to Write History that People Want to Read
Authors : Ann Curthoys, Ann McGrath
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-230-30496-3
Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan London
eBook Packages : Palgrave History Collection , History (R0)
Copyright Information : Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Nature America Inc. 2011
Softcover ISBN : 978-0-230-29038-9 Published: 17 June 2011
eBook ISBN : 978-0-230-30496-3 Published: 30 April 2016
Edition Number : 1
Number of Pages : VIII, 265
Topics : Historiography and Method , Creative Writing , Science, Humanities and Social Sciences, multidisciplinary
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12 Ways to Write a History Book
- by Barry Fox
- 12/20/2021 09/04/2023
Are you a history enthusiast, eager to write a history book, but not sure how to present your information?
There are many ways to arrange and share history with your readers, and each method has its own unique advantages. No single approach is better or worse. It’s really more of a matter of finding which works best for you and your material.
Consider these 12 types of history books. Which approach will make readers fall the most in love with your words and your particular historical topic?
An enlightening way to experience history is through the perspective of someone who was there. The biography format helps bring history alive by allowing you, as the author, to immerse your readers in the personalities, sights, sounds, and ideas of the time and place, as well as its unique character. You can also dive deeply into your subject’s life to see how and why he became who he did, and how he ended up playing such a vital role in the subject of the story.
Example: Alexander Hamilton , by Ron Chernow
2. Deep Dive on a Specific Incident
Taking a hard look at one historical event allows you to focus on an incident (or related series of items) that tells the story of the time and place in which it occurred. By using your creative storytelling skills to set the scene, you can help readers understand the event, people, place, and time, as well as the matter’s lasting importance.
Example: Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech that Made Lincoln President , by Harold Holzer
For a look at researching the American Civil War, see Writing About the Civil War: Research .
3. Personal Response to History
What happened in the past can feel unrelated to our modern world, although it may have more of an impact on us than we realize. A clever method of self-discovery is to explore a piece of history and reflect on how it has shaped your life. When you, the author, view history through such a personal lens, you can convey powerful emotions as well as significant pieces of information to your readers.
Example: Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause , by Ty Seidule
If you plan to include a fair amount of your life story in your “personal response to history” book, read our article on “How to Write a Memoir.”
4. Relationship-focused History
How humans interact with one another is a vital component of history. If any of the principal figures involved made other choices, history may have been different. By diving into the interpersonal dynamics between key players of a historic situation, you get to share their respective backgrounds and sometimes contrasting points of view that were brought together to create a single unique event.
Example: Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship , by Jon Meacham
Often referred to as “alternate history,” the counterfactual approach reimagines history. Here, the outcome of an established factual event, or a series of documented events, is changed. For example, the British soundly thrash the Minutemen who attack them on the way to and from Concord, likely altering the course of the American Revolution and the future of the U.S. Or if England’s King Edward IV married a French princess instead of Elizabeth Woodville, the War of the Roses would never have happened. Characters who time travel to change past happenings are a common theme in counterfactual history books, including alternate endings to major events such as World War II or a presidential assassination attempt. These types of books can be fun to write because you can use your imagination to tell a whale of a story.
Example: 11/22/63 , by Stephen King
6. Historical Novel
A historical novel can be best described as fiction based strongly on real events, characters, and locations. What happened may be modestly altered to make a better, cleaner story. Dialogue may be invented or paraphrased, but the make-believe conversations should remain consistent with what is known about the characters, time, and place. This is a creative way to connect readers with the story emotionally, while also educating them about a particular time period.
Example: The White Queen , by Philippa Gregory
7. Photographic Book
Sometimes, it’s better to set aside those 1,000 words and show a picture instead. Historical pictures, sketches, diagrams, and maps, as well as reproductions of documents showing original handwriting, can all convey a wealth of information that is difficult to reproduce with words. A photographic book is useful when conveying the look and feel of a place or an era. It’s also useful for writing about battles, inventions, or other complex matters that require maps, diagrams, or other visuals.
Example: Unseen: Unpublished Black History from the New York Times Photo Archives , by Dana Canedy, Darcy Eveleigh, Damien Cave, and Rachel L. Swarns
8. Contextualizing Historical Events
It can be hard, sometimes, for modern readers to understand why people of the past acted the way they did, especially when reading about what life was like centuries or millennia ago. A history book that gives context to an incident within the era in which it occurred can help readers understand the rationale behind choices made and actions taken during these events. Readers will be able to come away with a new perspective.
Example: The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present , by Ronald Hutton
9. Topic Through History
Another intriguing way to explore history is by focusing on a single concept, topic, or human endeavor, tracing it through time. This method allows you and the reader to explore how this topic evolved as the world around it changed, and how both the topic and its evolution influence us today. This approach can give a whole new perspective to the human experience.
Example: Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots , by James Suzman
10. How X Changed History
Similar to following how something changed through history, you can also explore how certain people, events, ideas, or inventions had an impact on the world. This method engages readers in the “life” of a chosen topic and how it connects to their modern worldview.
Example: The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History , by Kassia St. Clair
11. Hidden History
We all learned in school about major historical events. However, there’s only so much time for teachers to share additional details beyond the basic facts. As a result, some nuggets of history are less known than others. Focusing your history book on topics, concepts, items, or connections that have been largely overlooked by history can give you a chance to uncover and share their stories.
Example: They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South , by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers
12. Quiz Books
Your history book can appeal to trivia lovers by sharing interesting tidbits about a particular era, country, or topic. These can be simple one-line facts, or perhaps short stories to illustrate an event that many won’t know much about. Readers can use these fun facts to dominate their local bar’s trivia night, create small talk at networking events, or win game shows.
Example: The Big Book of American Facts: 1000 Interesting Facts and Trivia About USA , by Bill Neill
Inspired to start writing your own history book?
There are many forms a history book can take, and you should consider the list above carefully to select the one that best suits your material. Having a format to follow will make the research and writing more fun for you. Plus, your readers will enjoy learning about your topic, too!
IF YOU’D LIKE HELP WRITING YOUR HISTORY BOOK…
We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.
You can learn more about our ghostwriting experience on our Home Page .
If you’d like to get started on your book, call us at 818-917-5362 or use the contact form below to send us a message.
We’d love to talk to you about your exciting idea for a history book!
Please Note: Although we’re based in Los Angeles, California, we travel around the U.S. and abroad to meet with our authors. We do not ghostwrite screenplays, books for children, poetry, or school papers.
P.S. You might also enjoy “How to Write a History Book, ” “Writing About the American Civil War: Research,” “15 Ways to Write an Art Book ,” “12 Ways to Write a Business Book,” and “14 Ways to Write a Political Book.”
Contact Ghostwriters Barry Fox & Nadine Taylor
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Writing History!: A Companion for Historians Paperback – May 24, 2018
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- Print length 168 pages
- Language English
- Publisher Amsterdam University Press
- Publication date May 24, 2018
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- Publisher : Amsterdam University Press; Translated edition (May 24, 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 168 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9462986398
- ISBN-13 : 978-9462986398
- Item Weight : 12.8 ounces
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Writing a History Book Review
- Writing Essays
- Writing Research Papers
- English Grammar
- M.Ed., Education Administration, University of Georgia
- B.A., History, Armstrong State University
There are several acceptable ways to write a book review, but if your teacher doesn’t provide you with specific instructions, you might feel a little lost when it comes to formatting your paper.
There is a format used by many teachers and college professors when it comes to reviewing history texts. It isn’t found in any style guide, but it does contain aspects of the Turabian style of writing.
Although it might seem a little strange to you, many history teachers like to see a full citation for the book you’re reviewing (Turabian style) at the head of the paper, right below the title. While it might seem odd to start with a citation, this format mirrors the appearance of book reviews that are published in scholarly journals.
Below the title and citation, write the body of the book review in essay form without subtitles.
As you write your book review, remember that your goal is to analyze the text by discussing the strengths and weaknesses—as opposed to summarizing the content. You should also note that it’s best to be as balanced as possible in your analysis. Include both strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, if you think the book was either dreadfully written or ingenious, you should say so!
Other Important Elements to Include in Your Analysis
- Date/range of the book. Define the time period that the book covers. Explain if the book progresses chronologically or if it addresses events by topic. If the book addresses one particular subject, explain how that event fits into a broader time scale (like the Reconstruction era).
- Point of view. Can you glean from the text if the author has a strong opinion about an event? Is the author objective, or does he express a liberal or conservative viewpoint?
- Sources. Does the author use secondary sources or primary sources, or both? Review the bibliography of the text to see if there is a pattern or any interesting observation about the sources the writer uses. Are the sources all new or all old? That fact could provide interesting insight into the validity of a thesis.
- Organization. Discuss whether the book makes sense the way it is written or if it could have been better organized. Authors put a lot of time into organizing a book and sometimes they just don’t get it right!
- Author information. What do you know about the author? What other books has he/she written? Does the author teach at a university? What training or experience has contributed to the author’s command of the topic?
The last paragraph of your review should contain a summary of your review and a clear statement that conveys your overall opinion. It is common to make a statement such as:
- This book delivered on its promise because...
- This book was a disappointment because...
- This book contributed significantly to the argument that...
- The book [title] provides the reader with deep insight into...
The book review is an opportunity to give your true opinion about a book. Just remember to back up a strong statement like those above with evidence from the text.
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How to Write a Historical Book
Historians like Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin have written successful books in recent years. These writers found topics of great interest to the public and wrote compelling narratives that were easy to read. The world of academia can shield historians and graduate students from issues that interest nonfiction readers. Before you write a historical book, you need to pursue all research avenues and view your work from the perspective of a non-historian.
Create a Compelling Historical Book
Determine the ideal reading level for your historical book before starting your research. Writers who want to focus on students and newcomers to history will need to cover broad topics without assuming prior knowledge. Historians writing for graduate students and fellow academics can delve into specific areas of research without worrying about reader comprehension.
Locate letters, diaries, newspapers, and other primary documents for your historical book. You should devote months to exhausting these resources as you try to find people, events and interpretations of history unavailable in other books.
Examine the thesis of your historical book early to determine if it is original and sound. For example, a Civil War historian may want to narrow his focus on a specific battle and its influence on the Union or Confederacy war efforts. That's wiser than speaking about the Emancipation Proclamation.
Seek grant funding for your research to ease the financial burden of writing an historical book. Michigan State University has a list of grant organizations that fund graduate students and historians interested in original research. Many grants require historians to research at specific institutions, teach or demonstrate the importance of their projects.
Submit individual chapters from your historical book as journal articles before completing your manuscript. If your book focuses on a specific region or time period in history, you should find a journal that covers these areas exclusively. Look in future editions of the journal for letters and commentary on your chapters if they are published.
Keep your research methodology transparent by using impeccable foot notes, end notes and bibliographies. Your citation style may be limited by the publisher's in-house style guide so focus your attention on providing as much detail as possible for every note. Include a concluding chapter on the bibliography of your topic including books contemporary to your time period and publications that conflict with your thesis.
Secure publication rights for maps, artwork and photos borrowed from libraries and collections. Historical books often use photos on dust jackets, title pages and inserts within the book to break up long chapters of text. If you are unable to find the original owner of the photo, contact the library where the photo was stored for more information.
Approach university presses and small publishing houses after your manuscript is completed. Major publishers limit their historical nonfiction to hot topics. Your chances of getting published increase greatly if you are writing about regional topics and submit to small publishers within that region.
- Test elements of your historical book in lectures, seminars and discussion groups if you are a teacher. Use your book's thesis and supporting documents at appropriate times during the semester to determine if further research is needed. Ask your students for feedback on lectures and assignments related to these chapters to inform the rest of your writing.
- Prevent obvious criticisms of your work by reading major works on the topic before putting pen to paper. Search for journal articles, thesis papers and published books that cover your topic to give appropriate credit to past ideas. Dig deeper by looking for book reviews on these publications to determine if your research builds on scholarship in your specialty.
Things You'll Need
Nicholas Katers has been a freelance writer since 2006. He teaches American history at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis. His past works include articles for "CCN Magazine," "The History Teacher" and "The Internationalist" magazine. Katers holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in American history from University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, respectively.
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'let us descend' follows a slave on a painful journey — finding some hope on the way.
Jesmyn Ward's Let Us Descend is a superb historical-fiction novel sprinkled with supernatural elements that pulls readers into the life of a slave on a long, painful journey.
And, while accurate, this description fails to communicate the depth of this novel as well as the multiplicity of layers in which it works. Angry, beautiful, raw, visceral, and heartfelt, Let Us Descend is the literary equivalent of an open wound from which poetry pours. This novel is a thing you can't help but to feel, a narrative that hurts to read but that also fills you with hope. Ward's work always demands attention, but this book makes it impossible to look away even in its ugliest, most agonizing moments.
Annis is the daughter of an enslaved woman who was raped by her enslaver. Her life is rough, but once she's separated from her mother and then sold by her own father, things get worse. Annis struggles through endless miles on her way to being sold. Tied to other women and walking next to chained men, Annis' feet bleed as she's forced to walk for entire days without food and cross rivers with her hands tied. From the Carolinas, through fields and swamps, all the way to New Orleans, Annis walks and walks, witnessing brutality daily and fighting to keep her humanity intact.
Through her harrowing journey, Annis turns inward — relying on the memories of her mother and the stories she told her about her warrior grandmother — to find comfort, to find the strength to keep going. That introspection pierces the veil and soon Annis starts communicating with spirits and receives regular visits from Aza, her ancestor, who also used to visit her mother. As she begins her new life at a different place, her understanding of the world and the forces that affect it changes and Annis learns to listen to the spirit world. A narrative that plunges headfirst into the evils of slavery, injustice, and abuse, Let Us Descend also morphs into a story of queer love, rebirth, and the importance of memory.
Let Us Descend is an uncomfortable read. Physical, psychological, and sexual violence were constants for slaves, and Ward doesn't shy away from any of it. In fact, Annis' months-long journey is recounted in exhausting detail. At first, it all feels like too much, like the novel could've been edited to move faster through her journey. But over time Ward's intent is revealed and readers come to understand that the details are there because they were part of the story of thousands of souls, and if they had to get through it, the least we can do is read about it, feel their pain, develop more empathy, and make sure we fight the remnants of that treatment wherever we encounter them. Despite those dreadful details, this is not just a narrative that forces readers to look at this country's ugly past and face the lingering effects of its history; it's also a story about perseverance and the power of the spiritual world.
"The Water is all spirit. Before you and me, before anything, there was the Water. We come from the Water. We return to the Water. Only the Water knows all, but the Water does not speak." Those words from Aza exemplify the beautiful word puzzles the spirit world gives Annis. Ward's lyricism is used to great effect, especially in the novel's last third, and the words of the spirit world take center stage. Let Us Descend , which gets its title from Dante's Inferno (Dante makes a few appearances and is referred to as "the Italian") echoes that work in that it shows its characters' descent into hell. However, unlike Dante's masterpiece, Ward also offers a map to crawl back out.
Let Us Descend is as upsetting as it is beautiful and necessary. Ward's writing about slavery doesn't add anything new to the discussion, but her unique mix of historical fiction, supernatural elements, and gorgeous prose helps her carve out a special place in literature that deals with the subject. It's rare to have a historical novel that also feels timely, but this story pulls it off. Readers will walk with Annis, see the world through her eyes, and feel the pain of everything she experiences — but that journey, that suffering, will give them clarity and help them develop a deeper understanding of love, grief, and the realities of slavery. Ward has taken Black history in a time of racial and political turmoil and used it to scream about grief and injustice, but also about beauty, queer love, history, determination, and joy.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias .
How to write a historical novel and get it published: 9 tips from bestselling authors Alison Weir, Hilary Mantel and more
From writer's block to stiff competition, budding historical authors face a number of hurdles when it comes to getting their work published. So what, exactly, is the key to success? Here, we ask published authors including Alison Weir and Robert Hutchinson to share their top tips on how to start writing a book, how to find an agent, and how to become a better writer…
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Do your homework
“Have a look at the market. Find out what sells. Don’t just copy the successful books, but be mindful that your idea needs to be commercially viable before anyone parts with their money for it,” says Michael Arnold, author of The Civil War Chronicles .
Author and broadcaster Robert Hutchinson OBE, who has written a number of critically acclaimed books on Tudor history, adds: “Investigate the marketplace: how big will be the potential universe of potential readers? What has already been published about your planned subject? Has it been published to death, with a plethora of books already out there covering the same old ground?
“Will your book bring something brand new and exciting to those interested in the topic? What will make it different?
“Is there a gap in the marketplace your title will fill? Will your book satisfy an existing or emerging market need? Think in promotional headlines. What would be fresh and riveting about the content of your book?”
- Listen | Historian and author Tracy Borman describes the process of writing her first historical novel, set in the era of King James VI & I and the European witch craze
Find an agent
“Find an agent before approaching publishers, and select agents carefully,” says Michael Arnold. “Look at the kind of thing they usually represent.”
But be warned: “Agents are hard to find, you have to be extremely determined and persistent,” says Lisa Hilton, who has written a number of history books and historical novels including Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince , Wolves in Winter and The Stolen Queen .
Julian Stockwin, author of the acclaimed Captain Kydd series, says: “Getting an agent is not easy these days, but do your homework and find which agencies might be interested in your work. Submit your proposal to them in a professional manner and address an agent by name. (You can check out exactly what they want in a first approach on their websites).”
Christian Cameron, author of the Long War series and Tom Swan books, adds: “Get a good, veteran agent who you like and trust. When that person tells you something is bad, accept that and move on.”
Debra Daley, an award-winning novelist and screenwriter whose books include Turning the Stones and The Revelations of Carey Ravine , says: “Send the agent something short to read (30 pages or less) with an accompanying blurb that is ferociously focused on who your book is meant to appeal to. When you are starting out, people want to be able to pigeonhole you.
“Try and follow up with a phone call. Don’t email; agents are deluged in emails. They won’t want to take your call, but persist.”
- Hilary Mantel on the secrets of successful historical fiction
- How much time did Bernard Cornwell spend researching for The Last Kingdom ?
Forget the fads
“Forget the fads of publishing – by the time you write your book, editors will want some other fad. Make them like your fad,” says Christian Cameron.
And don't try to second-guess what might be popular, says Rachel Billington, who is the author of more than 20 novels. “Almost no one can predict next year's bestseller. Actually, no one!”
She adds: “And there’s a lesson to be learned from books such as H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald, 2014) and The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal, 2010): you can hit the bullseye with a book that seems, on the face of it, quite obscure. So write about what you care about and don't try to second-guess what might be popular.”
And when you come to submit your idea to publishers, present it “as either a full manuscript or an excerpt plus plot summary,” says James Heneage, the author of The Mistra Chronicles series and co-founder (with fellow author James Holland) of the Chalke Valley History Festival. “If going for the latter, try to include sketches of all the main characters. Be clear of the audience you are writing to.”
More like this
Does historical fiction need to be grounded in fact we asked wolf hall ’s award-winning author, hilary mantel..., polish your “diamond in the rough”.
“Self-edit first, and self-edit sincerely and assiduously before you show your work to the people who will help you get it published,” says Lyndsay Faye, author of the highly acclaimed Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret . “Cut 10 per cent, declare war on adverbs, read it aloud, ask your mum and your best friend and your cousin what they think.
“Your book is not perfect yet, and agents see mountains of unpolished material daily. Stand out by polishing your diamond in the rough before it lands in their inbox or on their desk.”
Lisa Hilton advises: “Work every day, ideally with a set word limit that you have to reach before you allow yourself to stop. This can be quite small, to allow for other activities, but it is essential to produce a viable full-length text for your first attempt.”
- Looking for something new to read? We pick our favourite historical fiction books to help you escape to the past
Rory Clements, the Sunday Times bestselling author of the Tom Wilde series of mid-20th century historical spy thrillers, urges you to “think like a tennis player”. Rory, who is also the author of the John Shakespeare series set in Elizabethan England, says: “No one could pick up a racket for the first time, go on to centre court at Wimbledon and beat Roger Federer (you wouldn’t even win a point, let alone the match). So it is with being an author. Work hard. Keep at it. Learn. Don’t give in.”
He also advises: “Read a lot and write a lot. Have a thick skin, because you will be disappointed along the way. Don’t expect your first book to be published and, if it is, don’t expect it to be a bestseller. It might happen, of course, but it’s very unusual.
“Show your work to friends and family. Listen carefully to what they say. If they think something is dull, improbable or clichéd, then they might have a point.”
Victoria Hislop, author of several novels including international bestseller The Island , advises: “Keep reading and writing, even while you are trying to get something published. Don’t stop, and don’t give up. Keep writing other things, keep imagining other stories, keep a notebook!”
- Listen | Renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell talk about his writing career and his books that inspired the Anglo-Saxon drama series The Last Kingdom
Keep your story nimble
Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, becoming the first female British author to win the award twice, says: “Take your time until you feel comfortable in your chosen era. And if you are writing about a real person, make sure it’s someone you don’t understand. You write to find out, to make sense, rather than to tell what you already know: to discover and explore. Your constant, puzzled engagement with the characters keeps the story nimble. If the characters seem to be changing, as living persons change, you are on the right track.”
To read more advice from Hilary Mantel, click here.
- Does historical accuracy really matter in period dramas like Wolf Hall ?
- Wolf Hall : author Hilary Mantel talks Tudors, historical accuracy and winning the Man Booker Prize
Get yourself out there
“Firstly, go to as many book talks and festivals as you can,” says Karen Maitland, who has written a number of medieval thrillers including Company of Liars , The Vanishing Witch and The Raven's Head . “You’ll pick up lots of tips about writing and publishing. Chat to the people in the coffee and cloakroom queues. You may find yourself talking to an agent or editor.
“Secondly, join one of the professional societies for the genre you write in, or at least check out their websites. Many societies such as the Crime Writers Association, Historical Novel Association or the Romantic Novel Association run competitions for unpublished novelists. They also have mentoring programs and manuscript appraising schemes, where your manuscript will be read by experienced authors or agents in that genre.
“And from their newsletters and websites, you’ll be able to see at a glance which editors in the different publishing houses are buying the kind of book you write. That will save you a lot of time, and help you to get your manuscript on to the desk of exactly the right editor or agent.”
You should also use your contacts, says Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon , The Silvered Heart and The Coffin Path . “Work on your book until you can’t bear it any more. Put it aside for a while and then do it again. Do the same with your submissions. Get a second opinion. Ask for help. Use your contacts. If you don’t have any, go out and make some. Attend events and conferences, talk to people, make friends. Be tenacious. But, most of all, make your book the best it can be.
Ask yourself – are you in this for the long-haul?
“You have to make yourself stand out from the crowd. But know that it could take years,” says Debra Daley. “Ask yourself if you are in this writing game for the long-haul, even in the face of multiple rejections. If the answer is yes, then you are probably going to get published somewhere down the line, because the fact is, as agents and publishers have told me, most would-be authors give up after about five years of not finding a publisher. But know that you are tougher than that.”
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Have another job to pay the bills
“Be aware that writing is lonely and, except for a few at the top, very badly paid, so, when starting out, have another job to pay bills and meet people,” says James Heneage.
Don’t give up
Alison Weir, the UK’s biggest selling female historian, whose books include The Six Wives of Henry VIII ; Eleanor of Aquitaine ; The Lost Tudor Princess and Isabella: She-Wolf of France , says “Ensure that your text is in an acceptable format. Never submit anything that isn’t your best effort. Listen to advice, and especially the reasons given in rejection letters. Above all, never give up!”
Meanwhile, Rachel Billington says: “I was lucky, but we all know successful, even phenomenally successful, novelists like JK Rowling who went on and on battering at the doors of publishers until she found one who liked her writing.
“It took my friend, John Spurling, more than a decade to get published his novel about 12th-century China, Ten Thousand Things . Now it's being read on both sides of the Atlantic and has been nominated for all sorts of awards.”
- Listen | Philippa Gregory discusses her 30-year career as a historical novelist and the history behind bestsellers such as The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen
Robert Hutchinson says “ Believe in your book, and do not be down-hearted by publisher rejections,” while Michael Arnold adds: “Keep writing; don't be put off. And finish the book. Don't give up when it becomes a slog (and it will) during the middle third.”
Julian Stockwin, author of the Captain Kydd series, says: “Read widely, and believe in yourself. If your book is good it will be published eventually.”
Christian Cameron believes “the one thing you need to write a good book, and FINISH, is passion – enough passion to get you all the way through. I LOVE history. I love the stories and the historiography – the reasons people wrote the way they did, and lied, and distorted. I love the buildings and the oppression and the liberty, and I love China and England and everywhere in between. This makes it very easy for me to write about history. Almost every day, I find something in history (and I read primary sources constantly) that makes me say ‘wow, I could write a novel about that’. Do you?”
This advice was originally published as part of BBC History Magazine’s Inspiring Writing competition, in collaboration with Hodder, in 2015, and has since been updated
Emma Mason was Content Strategist at HistoryExtra.com, the official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed until August 2022. She joined the BBC History Magazine team in 2013 as Website Editor
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Conferences, support oah, special projects, teaching tools, media and marketing, get involved, additional information, awards and prizes, online learning, writing history for a popular audience: a round table discussion, danielle mcguire, andrew miller, and t. j. stiles.
Most historians would love for their work to reach a wide, non-academic audience. But how does one break into the world “popular” history and publish a successful book with a trade press? The American Historian invited three participants—a tenured professor, an editor, and an author—to discuss their experiences with writing books geared more towards a popular audience and how to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of trade presses.
T.J. Stiles is the author of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, which received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History; The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the 2009 National Book Award for Nonfiction; and Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, winner of the 2003 Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship. A 2011 Guggenheim fellow, he is a member of the Society of American Historians.
Andrew Miller is a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf, where he acquires and edits history and narrative nonfiction. Among the authors he edits are Allen Guelzo, Gary Bass, Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward, Stephen Platt, and Bruce Hoffman.
Danielle McGuire is an award winning author of At the Dark End of the Streed: Black Women, Rape and Resistance and Associate Professor at Wayne Statue University in Detroit.
1) How should one approach publishing a book for a popular audience?
McGuire: The key, I believe, is to focus on the story. The goal is to make the past come to life and to make ordinary people care about the history you’ve devoted your life to. It is not to demonstrate your knowledge of historiography or historical debates. Prose should be clear and concise without any academic jargon. There should be a discernable through line and characters should be developed and fully fleshed out so readers have a stake in the tale and want to keep reading. Take stylistic cues from authors of award-winning narrative nonfiction and fiction.
Stiles: The first thing to remember is that academic and trade publishing operate in different economies. (I prefer the industry term “trade” to “popular” because the latter term can suggest a lack of seriousness, which is not necessarily the case at all.) The rewards of publishing an academic book largely consist of the respect of one’s peers, not monetary income from book sales; that prestige, of course, is the currency that pays for career advancement. It’s a good system for developing the discipline, but it also leads to a relatively closed conversation among the cognoscenti.
Trade publishing exists in the commercial economy. Here, you try to expand your audience, rather than more deeply penetrate a closed market, as in academic publishing. You do that not by dumbing down, but by maximizing the reading experience. The ultimate goal of the trade book is not to advance the state of the field, though it certainly may do that, but to succeed as a book—as an organically complete and satisfying work. In trade books, the emphasis is on reading pleasure. That can come from many sources—not only storytelling, but also provocative new research and arguments. You can still engage in debates with important scholars and situate your work within current historiography, but unless it serves the experience of the reader, relegate all that to the notes.
General readers prefer narrative, but argument and thematic explorations can succeed in trade books as well if you provide a sense of forward movement, an anticipation that you are going someplace. Give the reader a reason to go on to the next page. Focus on individual humans when writing about humanity. Specific examples are good; real characters, who live and breathe and make decisions and face consequences, are better. Most of all, I recommend that you write a book you would read for pleasure. If you do not belong to your own potential audience, you’ll be faking it, and it will lead to an unsuccessful book.
Miller: I think it might be helpful to break this answer down into two stages. The first is the acquisition or commissioning stage. As a trade publisher, we have to weigh a project’s literary and historiographical merit as well as its commercial prospects. There’s no formula here, more like sliding scales, in which the ideal is a work of serious scholarship and quality that also seems likely to be a bestseller. But we also take on some books that we know will be difficult to sell if we are sufficiently passionate about them.
When we think about commercial prospects, we tend to think about both publicity and sales, which are two different things. There are certain books one expects to get quite a bit of review attention, but still seem unlikely to be bought by a large readership.
So how do we figure out what people will want to read? A significant part of this is to rely upon comparable books (or comps). These can be books on a similar subject or books that have a similar approach to a completely different subject. But an editor’s hunches also have a strong component in deciding what to publish; sometimes we’re just convinced that a book needs to be published. We still look at comps, to estimate sales and figure out the advance to be paid, but we might weigh them less in this case.
The comps also come in handy at the second stage, which is the actual publication. Comps provide some guiding light for our sales and publicity teams to convince booksellers, radio producers, and book review editors of the viability of our projects. They also provide a kind of shorthand for all these people—a way to grasp something fundamental about the book and place it in some kind of context—which is essential given the tens of thousands of books that come out every year.
But comps will only get you so far, and you still need to set your own book apart and make a case for its merits. So much of what we do is to try to distill the key arguments or themes or strengths of a book, and then articulate why they’ll be of interest to readers. Our sales and publicity teams then take our arguments and translate them for the same people I mentioned above. Some of this is just useful background information (say, the annual dollars given to charity for a book on philanthropy), but much of it attempts to capture a book’s relevance and appeal.
2) What do authors who publish with a popular press have to know about the process? How is it different than publishing with an academic press?
McGuire: I think you need to be able to clearly explain why your book matters, who your audience is, and why you think it will sell. For popular presses, the bottom line is always going to be about sales. Why your book? Why now? What will its impact be?
Access to popular presses, unlike an academic press, is often through an agent. She/he is the gatekeeper and can help ferry your proposal or manuscript through the publishing process. An agent will also help you negotiate the terms of your publishing contract, may be able to get you an advance and will champion you and your book throughout the entire publishing process and long afterwards.
Popular presses will not send out your manuscript to academic reviewers. Your editor will be the main reader and the person who you’ll need to please.
Both academic and popular presses will work with you on a marketing strategy. Popular presses have a larger budget and will have greater access to national outlets (television, radio, print media, online sources). However, authors who chose either popular or academic presses will have to do a lot of the marketing themselves and should be prepared to create a social media presence if they do not already have one.
Stiles: First, you must have an agent. For trade publishers, agents provide an initial layer of quality control and professionalize the submission process; for authors, agents get more money and better terms. Second, get a sense of the trade marketplace—the failings or absence of other books on your topic. Third, trade contracts for nonfiction are usually issued based on book proposals accompanied by sample chapters, not complete manuscripts. Your agent will help you shape your proposal. Again, do not dumb down your approach. Trade publishers like intelligent books, too. Show that you can keep the reader engaged. But don’t oversell. Don’t reach for comparisons with some mega-bestseller.
Unlike an academic press, a commercial house will not subject your proposal or manuscript to peer review. That’s up to you. Marketing is far more important than it is for an academic press. Your editor may push for a different title than the one you come up with; you may be surprised by the cover design. Have a reason other than personal attachment if you object. You know your book best; they know the trade market. A collaborative spirit will save you much aggravation. The level of marketing support can vary widely. Publishing helps authors who help themselves.
Miller: I can’t speak with any real knowledge about the academic side of the business, but I do know one key difference is that we don’t have peer review. I think most of our authors have knowledgeable readers look at their work to make sure there aren’t errors, but within the publishing house, a manuscript is first read by an editor, and then it goes through a copyediting and proofreading process.
Nearly all the time in trade publishing, the editor working on the manuscript is the same editor who signed up the book. Our financial investment becomes an emotional investment as we become the in-house point person and the primary advocate for the book.
The editing is always a response to the individual manuscript and can go any number of different ways. I always read a manuscript through before making any edits. The first responses tend to focus on bigger-picture issues such as pacing, chapter structure, and so on, to make sure the book will keep a reader’s interest above all else. From there it’s a process of narrowing the focus to catch mistakes, ask for more detail, cut extraneous detail, tighten the writing, and improve paragraph transitions. Sometimes this is just one draft and sometimes it’s six or seven, but I’d say the average is probably two or three drafts. My sense is that trade editors work on fewer books each year, and our editorial process (the one before copyediting) is more intensive than at university presses, but I could be wrong.
Once the manuscript is done, the process of publishing begins. A number of academic presses have trade divisions and I suspect their publishing process is not unlike ours; the goal, as mentioned earlier, is to figure out how to talk about the book in ways that catch the eye of the media in the hopes that they’ll cover the book. We do some advertising but there are always questions about how cost-effective it is, and a fair amount of our effort is spent on publicity and social media marketing.
3) From your own personal experience, what are the major differences between popular and academic presses? Why do you think there’s separation between the two?
Miller: The first and most obvious distinction is the types of books we publish. There’s certainly overlap—for many of us the ideal author is a professor with deep expertise but also an ability to write for general readers—but university presses publish many books that are just too specialized to work for us.
In terms of process, we don’t have peer review but I think we probably do more editing, as mentioned above. And I think our publicity teams probably have stronger connections to mainstream media outlets.
The separation has to exist because of the fundamental difference between publishing as a scholarly contribution and a commercial proposition. There are certainly overlaps—both types of publishers have to deal with costs, and trade publishers do publish books that offer real scholarship—but I suspect the overlaps are much smaller than the differences.
Stiles: Academic presses are designed to meet the needs of scholarly disciplines, so they are oriented toward the closed academic-book marketplace of libraries and course adoption. They belong to the prestige economy of the academy and benefit from the scholarly standing of their authors, just as universities do with their faculty. Their editors are often specialists. They go to conferences. They subject manuscripts to peer review. Structured into their business model (see my comments below) is the fact that academic authors don’t write for money (and sometimes live in fear that they won’t be published at all).
By contrast, a trade press operates in an open marketplace, competing for both authors and readers. Commercial houses expect your agent to demand more money and better terms. They will actually pay you an advance. When the book is published, they want to maximize sales, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they are crass about it. I worked for a decade in publishing, in both an academic house and a commercial one (Oxford University Press and Ballantine Books), and found that people in trade publishing emphatically love books. But their priority is publishing good books, not advancing the discipline. If you write an important book, in terms of scholarship, that is also engaging, they’ll be delighted; if you write an important book that is encased in jargon and historiographical nitpicking, expect a lack of enthusiasm.
4) What are the advantages of publishing with a popular press? Are there any disadvantages?
McGuire: In my opinion, the purpose of writing history is to breathe life into the dead past; to make people care about it and to put it to use in the present. Popular presses generally have access to a much larger audience than your average university press and can help your work get noticed. I also think popular presses tend to focus more on narrative prose since the audience for your book is ordinary people and not exacting academics. But that is not true for every academic press. And there are good arguments to be made for writing to and for an academic audience.
Miller: The advantages stem from the above: editing and publicity aimed at enabling an author to be read by wider audiences, without sacrificing course adoptions. The advances can be higher too.
But there are certain books that might be better off at university presses, even if a trade publisher offers. On our lists, a book that’s more scholarly is going to be competing for resources with books that are more likely to make money, but at an academic press that same book might be the lead title. Every situation is unique and there’s no formula, so it’s hard to be more categorical than that.
Stiles: There are three advantages. First, the money and terms are better. And, with a decent agent, you can better protect your rights to your work. Second, you stand a better chance of being heard in a broad public discussion of history and its relevance. This is because your book will get more attention from the media and because a trade press is capable of far greater distribution. Third, you gain a particular kind of freedom. With an academic press, you must meet the demands of your scholarly audience. There’s a kind of freedom in that, since you can take up narrow topics of limited public appeal, but you must respond to the state of the field and write in a style that indicates you are speaking to your professional peers. A general audience does not care about professional discourse. That frees you to write about subjects with little scholarly currency and to abandon academic conventions for a more literary style. You can still add to our knowledge, but you might have more fun with it. What you are not free to do is to bore the reader. A trade book belongs to the literary sphere, and is a little more likely to achieve broader cultural significance.
5) From your experience, how do tenure committees view publishing for popular audiences?
McGuire: I received tenure without complication. But I have also gotten the cold shoulder from some frosty academics who believe publishing your first book with a popular press is not sufficiently rigorous or academic enough. I do think things have changed, however, with so many academics gaining a social media/popular history presence that challenges more traditional outlets and guardians of intellectual knowledge.
Miller: I’ve heard that they frown upon it, but frankly I’ve never understood why. We may not do peer review, but we do have a pretty intensive selection process and, as I’ve mentioned, I think our editing and copyediting are more thorough because we have fewer books and more resources. And authors can have informal peer reviews by asking colleagues to read for them. I should add the caveat, though, that while I think this is generally true of trade publishing, I really only have intimate knowledge of how Knopf works.
6) What is the structural relationship between academic and popular presses? Are they on friendly terms, or is there a sense of competition?
Miller: I think there was more competition several years ago, but due to challenges in the marketplace, I get the sense that trade publishers are taking on fewer “small” and midlist books. My hope is that this means university presses are able to sign up more of these books that may have some crossover potential, to help their bottom line.
I think I can safely say that trade publishers have only good will toward university presses (and personally I love to see something like Piketty or Nudge happen for a university press), but I suspect that’s not always shared since we do have a habit of swooping in and poaching authors once they’ve already been established by academic presses. Usually that results from an author finding an agent and approaching us, but I doubt that makes it much more palatable.
Stiles: I think overall the relationship is surprisingly congenial, because they operate in such different marketplaces. Often commercial presses will establish cooperative marketing, sales, and distribution agreements with small academic houses, which often lack business expertise and infrastructure.
7) How is the scope and reach of books published with a popular press different than those published by an academic press? What is the difference in print run? Pricing structure?
Stiles: Some academic presses have a trade presence, publishing titles that reach the New York Times bestseller list. But trade presses have much bigger pipeline to the general public, with far a greater publicity, marketing, sales, and distribution infrastructure. Non-academic reviewers are interested in books aimed at non-academics, so trade books get more press attention.
This is not just a matter of size, but of the structure of the two kinds of publishing. The academic market consists primarily of course adoption and library sales. The goal is to most fully penetrate that limited market, which depends largely on the prestige of the author or the perceived significance of the book’s scholarly contribution. This aligns their interests with those of academics, who advance in their careers through the acquisition of prestige from their books. That’s why academic presses subject manuscripts to peer review, and also why they spend almost nothing on marketing—the established system of professional discussion of new work does that for them. The sunk costs must be recovered by being spread out over a small number of units sold. This is true even in the age of digital books. The cost of producing a book does not largely consist of printing, warehousing, and distribution. It lies in the hours of work by editors, editorial assistants, copy editors, designers, and the advance and royalties for authors, promotion, and overhead. Don’t forget that many books lose money. That means the successful ones must cover the deficits. When academic books are sold to the general market, retailers usually take only 20 to 30 percent of the list price—compared to 50 percent for trade books. So bookstores don’t put academic books on their shelves.
Trade publishers face a riskier but potentially more rewarding environment. I’ve heard informally that something like 70 percent of trade books lose money. Trade publishers naturally reward success, putting marketing money into titles most likely to turn a profit. So if you complain that your publisher spends nothing on you and everything on, say, Stephen King, remember that books like his are why the publisher could take a risk on your book in the first place. With a trade book, the recovery of sunk costs can be distributed across a greater number of units, so the list price is often much lower than for an academic book. The list price, like the print run and the acquisition process, is a gamble. With hardcovers, royalties are usually 10 percent of the list price for the first 5,000 copies, 12.5 percent for the next 5,000, and 15 percent thereafter. With paperbacks, royalties are usually fixed at 7 or 8 percent of the list price. Before you get a royalty check, though, you must “earn out”: the royalties first repay your advance, though it is nonrefundable. Royalty periods are six months long, and you get your check (or statement, sans check) a few months after the end of each period. In other words, your book could become a bestseller, but you might not see any money from those sales for nearly a year. For e-books, the standard royalty rate gives trade authors 25 percent of the publisher’s revenue. Regarding advances: These days advances are usually broken up into four payments: On signing the contract, on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript, on hardcover publication, and on paperback publication a year later after the hardcover. Most houses insist on the paperback rights, which used to be sold separately, and on the e-book rights. Your agent will negotiate other subsidiary rights, or the right to sell those rights, for audio books, translation, film and television adaptation, etc. The payments will go to your agent, who will withhold 15 percent and pay you the rest. Advance and subsidiary rights payments are not delayed, as with royalties. One final note: Though you are selling publication rights to a trade press, you retain the copyright. The publisher is your business partner, not your employer. Don’t expect fact checking or peer review. The onus of getting it right is on you.
Miller: In addition to our more scholarly works we publish more works by independent historians and journalists, probably with a great emphasis on narrative. But I’d say the history books on a university press’s trade list could often appear on ours. Our print runs vary widely but we generally would like to be above 10,000 to start. I think our prices tend to be quite a bit lower; $40 is the upper limit for us, unless a book is illustrated, and $30 to $35 is much more common for books under 800 pages.
8) In your opinion, what is the future of academic presses? Are they still viable in today’s economy?
Miller: I can’t speak to this with any real knowledge but, as mentioned above, I hope that the shift in our acquisitions has opened some doors for university presses, and that the ability to publish dissertations as e-books has enabled them to reduce costs. I tend to think of publishing as akin to an ecosystem: the more diversity, the better.
Stiles: Academic presses play an extremely important role in the scholarly ecosystem. They provide a means of professionally publishing books that are essential to sustaining academic disciplines with a degree of quality control. Of course, academic authors are generally not looking for income, but rather for the distribution of their research and ideas and the respect of their peers. Many naturally resent the high prices of academic books, particularly since there is a broad assumption these days that the creation of anything in digital form is essentially cost-free. As anyone who has edited, copy-edited, proofread, designed, or even sorted the mail at an academic press can tell you, that assumption is wrong. (Trade authors can also tell you that!) Yet the idea is pervasive, driving down public budgeting not only for university presses but also library acquisition. Such misperceptions, more than technological change itself, are squeezing academic presses. If scholarly publishers disappear, many academic books will be of lower quality and the costs will be borne entirely by the authors