If you’re writing a history book which is original and scholarly but which you hope has popular appeal too, then the news is pretty grim. The market for such books is extremely tough at the moment. You only have to glance at this photograph to see what I mean. Taken earlier this week at WHSmith in the departure lounge at Stansted airport, it tells you everything you need to know.
History gets one bookcase in a large outlet of maybe forty bookcases. Of the six shelves, the bottom four contain books on military history, specifically World War Two, shading into special forces memoirs. The remaining top two shelves are for everything else that ever happened, anywhere, and a very eclectic mix it is too. In fact the top shelf is labelled (not visible in this photo) ‘Ancient World’. Except there’s not one book on there pre-middle ages. There is a fair proportion of books by well-known journalists with TV tie-ins too taking up the top two shelves, as well as prominent prize winners.
Don’t get me wrong – I know as an author how difficult it has been for each and every one of those writers to have got their books, on any historical subject, published. I’m not dissing them. All I’m saying is that it’s a sobering sight for anyone trying to break into the market with a book on a quirky topic or those which deal with less well-worn periods. Getting a publishing contract is only one of many steps. The bookshop buyers have to take it on. They have to agree with the publisher that their readers will want to reach out and buy it, even if it’s not their usual sort of thing. It has to be marketed well in the shop and elsewhere, and displayed prominently and attractively to make people stop and take a look. Then the punters have to decide to buy it as well. It seems that just when you’ve leapt one hurdle, another appears. And they’re mostly out of your control.