Category Archives: Publicising the Book

The YEAR Parliament Burned Down

Well, 2013’s been a year and half, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing it with me. Here’s a bit of a recap for those not on the rollercoaster:

January The Day Parliament Burned Down is shortlisted for the Longman-History Today Prize. I attend the jolly party, and while the book doesn’t win, I’m just delighted to have been nominated. I get to meet lots of fun people (including some heroes like Diarmuid MacCullough) and another OUP book wins, so we all go out for a slapup Thai meal in Piccadilly with our publisher anyway. Result!

February The Day Parliament Burned Down has also been shortlisted for the Paddy Power and Total Politics Political Books Awards. It’s up in two categories: Political History Book of the Year, and Political Book of the Year. I go to the awards ceremony with my agent Bill Hamilton and my other half at the iMAX in Waterloo, London. I think I’m in with a bit of a chance for History Book of the Year, so I don’t give the aperitifs too much welly before hand; I enjoy the canapés, though. The venue is packed with politicians and media types being paparazzi-ed frenziedly. I’ve slipped in un-noticed.

At the awards ceremony itself, I find myself sitting beside Christopher Duggan, another nominee for History Book of the Year. We shake hands and wish each other luck. He wins, with his excellent book Fascist Voices, which later in the year goes on to win the grand-daddy of all history book, prizes, the Wolfson. Very well-deserved. I sit through the rest of the awards, thinking that really I didn’t need to hold back on the drinks since I wouldn’t be making a speech after all. My mind turns to thoughts of supper, and those nice-looking snackbowls being prepared for later. All of a sudden, we’re nearly at the end, and the Political Book of the Year is announced. My book wins. Gobsmacked. Then terrified. No speech for this prize. Help! I stumble down the auditorium, and am presented with the prize. I burble my thanks. It’s all over. Lots of people come up to congratulate me afterwards, including a number of women who point out how male the shortlists and judges have been, and how great it is that a woman won top prize. Thrilled to have won, and thrilled to have done my bit for the sisterhood. I slip out un-noticed, too. The morning after, I take a large box of Laduree macaroons into work, to celebrate with colleagues.

March I take a trip to America, and go on a lecture tour for the splendid Royal Oak Foundation, talking about the fire on the east and west coasts.

April Still on the US tour at the beginning of the month, and I get to see one of Turner’s oil paintings of 16 October 1834: a real treat.

p - enfilade

At the end of the month I visit the Ashridge estate, and while I’m there, get a taste of what the old Palace really looked like.

May After a couple of false starts, and months of writing a proposal, I sign a contract for a new book. What’s it to be? Well, watch out in 2016 for it…

June I speak at the Hay Literary Festival, and write about why talking to audiences is fun, and my experiences since publication.

July Even though the book was published 11 months ago, reviews of the hardback continue to trickle through in various publications, including Oxford Today.

August The paperback edition is published, with a few factual corrections and a nice front cover puff from Prof Mary Beard. I sign a hundred copies for the Houses of Parliament Shop.

book pile

September An exhibition I’ve curated on the fire is installed in Portcullis House, and the public come to take a look during Open House Weekend.


October It’s the 179th anniversary of the fire, and the History of Parliament asks me to write an article on it for their website, which I am delighted to do.

November I write about my Books of the Year for History Today. And in a neat coincidence, the New Statesman names the paperback as one of its books of the year too. Hurrah!

December Back in September I visited Canada, and took a look at the Parliament building in Ottawa, destroyed by fire in 1916. Based on that, I write an article about this for a Canadian political periodical, published this month. And as the end of the year draws close, I buy myself a couple of early Christmas presents, and look forward to putting my feet up over the festive season…


Talking Books 1: My Patented Talk-Giving Pack

Having given over 50 talks in the last year or so, I now have packing for them down to a fine art.  The perfect history book talk pack comprises the following for me:

One small hard-sided suitcase with wheels – cabin baggage size. Mine is this one – yes, expensive but very hard-wearing, has an interior net on one side of the case, and most important of all – featherweight (I can balance it on a finger).  You’ll see why this is important in a bit.

Inside this you put:

Books for sale at the talk.  I always try to find out the expected size of audience before a talk and estimate selling to 15% of the audience.  Books are heavy but also easily damaged.  That’s why you need a robust suitcase on wheels which is also as light as possible.  The books are packed round with the stiff paper from the publisher’s boxes sent to me wholesale.

A USB stick with my presentation on it.  This goes into the interior pocket of the suitcase.  I also have another USB stick in my handbag.  Oh, and the presentation is backed up online too, just in case.  I say ‘presentation’ but in fact I have about ten different versions for a variety of audiences and timings.  Sometimes I share the presentation in advance via the Cloud with talk organisers if they want to download it in advance.  I still take the USBs though.

A laser pointer/slide remote control for the Powerpoint.  Mine is the Kensington – a brilliant gizmo which works every single time and saves you being stuck by a laptop if you want to be elsewhere when presenting.

Spare batteries for the laser pointer.  The only disadvantage of the Kensington is that it doesn’t warn you when it’s about to conk out.

A float of £20 in £1 coins.

A signing pen, or two.

A cashbook with details of the number of books I have taken with me, so I can work out how many I’ve sold at the end.  I mark the books in the cashbook as I sell them, for the taxman.

Two A4 tabletop plastic display stands – one with blurb about the book from OUP, the other with prices of the paperback and hardback on it. I sell the books for the wholesale price, rounded up to the nearest pound for convenience.  There’s no point in authors doing otherwise today, unless you’re very famous and people are desperate for your signature (they’re not for mine!).  Otherwise people will simply check the price on Amazon on their phones (I’ve seen them do this) and buy there unless you’re cheaper.  Happily, getting the books off OUP wholesale means I manage to undercut Amazon by around 20p each time.

A replica tallystick for talks about the 1834 fire.

Leaflets, postcards and any other free giveaways (lightweight, natch).

Water and a snack (eg banana, nuts) – speaking requires energy and one hour’s constant talking requires wet vocal chords.

That leaves you with a bit of space for a toothbrush and undies if you’re staying overnight after the talk.

So, there we are.  All packed up and ready to talk.  If you do talks, what essentials do you take with you?  And what do you think makes an ideal talk host (the subject of my next blogpost)?


If you liked this, you might also like Health & Safety for Historical Researchers.




Happy Anniversary, Great Fire of Westminster!

Yes, it’s 179 years since the old Houses of Parliament burned down. Last year there was the very successful real-time tweet of the events of 16 October 1834 (you can still see the story as it unfolded on Twitter), and this year there are more treats to mark the anniversary.

Firstly, there’s a brand new page about the fire, launched today, on the History of Parliament website. This complements the other concise but very useful potted histories of key moments in the House of Commons and House of Lords there.



Then, at Westminster, there is an exhibition on the fire currently running in Portcullis House for Parliamentarians through the autumn. It was open to the public on Open House Weekend at the end of September. It was great fun curating it, and I’d like to thank the Curator’s office at Parliament for suggesting that I might like to do it. If you missed it, then don’t worry – you can find a free downloadable booklet and other resources relating to the paintings and drawings in our art collection which depict the 1834 fire on the Art in Parliament website.


If you’re in London there’s still time to come to the Open Lecture today in Parliament at 2.30pm, where I’ll be giving a free public talk on the fire. Do come and say hello if you’re there.

And remember, the Houses of Parliament shop has signed copies of the book now out in paperback (they make great Christmas presents) and you can even order them on online if you wish – I signed 100 of them a couple of weeks ago in just 15 minutes…

book pile


Finally, here are a couple of my favourite blogposts from the last year. I hope you enjoy them:

A Tale of Two Birthdays

My Hot Date with Mr Turner