History Books: An Uncertain Future
There has been much comment aroused by Keith Thomas’s criticism of young historians’ eagerness to embrace the life of the telly don, but to my knowledge no one has questioned the most contentious passage in the Independent’s original report on the matter:
‘In the past decade, sales of history books have increased by more than 45 per cent to nearly 5.4 million copies a year – more than double the rate of growth across the publishing industry as a whole, according to the publishing data company, Nielsen BookScan.’
I think that is misleading. To take a snapshot of sales over the past decade does not accurately frame the current state of affairs of the market for history books; equally importantly it does not signify what will happen over the next ten years.
Sales have fallen dramatically for history books over the past three years or so, for various reasons, and the result is that major publishers are commissioning fewer books. Advances have gone down by 45 per cent in some cases for authors, compared to what they may have been paid ten years ago.
History is far from down and out – many books can sell and do sell by major publishers – but unfortunately I fear the golden age (in terms of book sales and advances) is part of the past rather than present. The likes of Max Hastings, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Ben Macintyre continue to sell in admirable quantities, but those swallows do not a summer make.
Paul Lay is editor of History Today and author of History Today... And Tomorrow
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