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Thinking about writing a history book?

I published my first unpaid article in 1998, my first book, published by a university press, in 2008. For the second book, I hope to land a New York publisher. I’ve not chosen the easiest path. Publishers prefer a trade-publishing record. I’ve been told, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, that a magazine article in your field yields more respect in New York than a university book. This is probably because of the earned reputation of academic historians writing inaccessible, thesis-driven history for one another, instead well-told, character-driven stories for the general public.

For those budding grassroots historians looking to make the leap, it can be done. You only need a good story, the ability to tell it well, and a marketing “platform” to make you and your book more visible than the millions of other books competing for the reader’s dollar. I’ll talk about platforms in a later post. Assuming you have the story, the skill, and the platform, you still need to know the process. There is an entire industry devoted to telling you what that process is and guiding you through it. Unfortunately, the information out there generally targets the mass of would-be published authors, and, for the most part, they write fiction (especially genre fiction), memoirs, and how-to books. For the most part, they don’t write history. This little essay is for those of you who do and are interested in making the leap to New York.

I entered what was, for me, uncharted territory the day I decided to try to get a New York publisher for my second book. The first, Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande, was published by an excellent academic press, Texas A&M University Press. Of course, the process of signing with a university publisher is pretty straightforward. A book proposal goes directly to the publisher who decides yay or nay. The back end has the complicating factor of getting a university committee to buy off, but the front end is pretty streamlined.

Selling New York on your book idea is a much more difficult task, one that can be likened to threading a series of needles featuring progressively smaller eyes. First, you need a literary agent, and not just any agent, but one who is looking to sign books like the one you are writing. A good place to start looking is the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents, updated annually. Or just “Google” or “Bing” to find an agent who represents history, preferably of the sort you are writing.

Once you identify an agent, determine if they are looking for new clients. Their website will state whether they are accepting queries, the one-page sales pitch that is the attention-getting vehicle in the world of nonfiction. Better still, try to meet the agents you are interested in at writer’s conferences or similar venues. If they like your “elevator pitch” or your query letter, they will ask you to send a book proposal and sample chapters. If they like that, they may want to sign you. If you and your book and the agent are a good match, then they have the tough job of selling your book to a publisher.

I won’t describe the query letter or nonfiction book proposal here. I can tell you there are rules to writing the query letter and the book proposal. Very few queries receive a positive response. Depending on the agent, it might be 1-2% or as much as 10%, maybe more. With luck, the agent you’d like to approach will describe what they want on that website. If not, get a sense of what is needed by researching a host of websites of agents handling your type of book. I will say that there are quite a few books in the marketplace on writing query letters and nonfiction book proposals, but most of the spilled ink is devoted to fiction, memoir, and prescriptive nonfiction—how-to books: “The 7 Ways to Avoid Being Skinned By Your Cat,” “The Nine Secrets of (We Can’t Tell You),” and similar titles. The two books in print (both written by literary agents) that I’ve found most useful are:

Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published, by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato. This 2002 books really needs a new edition, given the changes in the industry. It remains an excellent resource on putting some story features into your book. Especially useful if you want to go with an academic press.

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events, by Peter Rubie (2006).

I relied mainly on Rabiner to write the Salt Warriors proposal and to improve the book. I’ve found Rubie more useful to crafting the proposal for the FBI book.

Both Rabiner and Rubie stress the importance of story. In this marketplace, it is not enough to recite a chain of facts. If you want to sell your book, use those facts to create characters we care about with stories that interest us. Publishers know such books have a better chance of finding readers and holding their attention. I have in my hand a groundbreaking little book on one of the most notorious desperadoes in early Arizona history. Every important fact known about the subject at the time of writing is right there, logically presented, and argued persuasively for some, not for others. What the author missed is a sense of the man. He should be a protagonist who makes something happen, who other characters react to. He should leap off the page. He does not. Write a story, breathe some life, if you can.

A word about “nonfiction.” There are many agents who represent works of nonfiction, but most of that appears to be prescriptive nonfiction. Why? Because it accounts for a bigger share of the market than does history. Much bigger. Make sure the literary agent represents history or at least “narrative nonfiction.” A word of caution about the term “narrative nonfiction.” In many cases, what the agent might have in mind is not third party history but first party memoir. An easy way to tell is to see what books they have represented and sold.

Here are links explaining what some literary agents are looking for in a nonfiction book proposal, starting with Peter Rubie. Again, if you want to approach a particular literary agent, follow that agent’s guidelines. If they don’t specify, immerse yourself in these and others, find what makes the most sense for your project, and follow that:

A final word. Recently I posted on Facebook that whoever invented the nonfiction book proposal should be consigned to the lowest level of Hell. I stand by that, but it is what it is. Follow the rules, create a perfect product (all agents agree on that) and have fun doing it!