Writing a Trade History Book, Part 2: The Proposal

Click here to see Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction.

When I wrote my first Non-fiction book proposals, with all of its moveable parts, I felt intimidated. I had to create an overview, author bio, market analysis, competition, plan for promotion, the table of contents, my chapter summaries, and a detailed explanation of my source materials before a literary agent would even consider looking at my idea for a book.

I definitely can’t tell you how to write a non-fiction book proposal (thankfully others have gotten into that), but I can tell you about my experience creating and revising my first one (I’m now working on my second, woo!), and how worth it it really was.

Of course I loved creating the table of contents and the chapter summaries. Doing that helps you figure out if you’ve got enough material for a book, or if you’re trying to collapse too many elements into one. And the part where I explain my source materials? Really fun- I loved gathering all of my books, microfilms, photocopies, and archival photos into once place and taking stock of all there is. Seeing all the primary sources together like that helped me to ask where the silences were, and where the meatiest parts of the story existed. That caused me to make a few changes to my table of contents. Then gathering up my secondary sources helped me to figure out if my book had a chance of being fair and balanced, or if I over-relied on a handful of historians whose interpretations I enjoy more.

But then there were the other parts. A big shout-out to my agent for being patient enough with me to revise them multiple times before sending it on to publishers. The other parts are much more marketing-oriented. I tried to imagine how someone in the book-selling business would see this book of mine, and how they would sell it. On which shelf would it go? To which books could I compare it? What kind of reader would want it? How could it be made most profitable without losing its essence and integrity?

Writing those parts of the book proposal showed me that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the world of publishing. And that’s to be expected- I’ve spent the past twelve years in academia. While I do read widely and enjoy trade history books (and other trade non-fiction), the majority of the books I’ve gone through in that time have been academic. That means that I have been exposed mostly to books created to fulfill professional curiosity and research gaps, not books created to entertain and teach the public about history. I had to entirely re-orient myself.

Thankfully, that’s where the teacher-brain took over. I sell history to everyday people all the time. My students, whether they are undergrads or older adults continuing their education for fun, do better with historic material if it’s presented in an interesting way. I weave together all kinds of stories for them upon which to hang all the facts and theories they need to know. I’m always picking the unconventional and surprising historic figures in my primary sources and showing students the larger paradoxes of the time periods through these characters’ daily lives. When my students lean forward and stop surfing the net, I know it’s a story that will sell.

Writing the book proposal taught me that the main difference between writing an academic and a trade book is like the main difference between sitting in the archives and standing at the lectern: it’s audience. The “So what?” is important in any non-fiction book, but the other academics who read your academic book don’t need it: they understand the intrinsic importance of most historic research, and if your book has to do with their topic, they’ll give it a glance. In a trade book, however, how well you nail the “so what?” is everything. If you show your readers how everyday people were affected by the thing you’re writing, they want to know more. Just like you’ve got to convince your students that the time and money they have invested in your class will pay off, you’ve got to reassure the reader that your book is worth it. It’s a mental shift that affects every other part of the proposal and your book, and opens up so many exciting avenues to explore.




Writing a Trade History Book, Part 1: The Introduction

Click here to see Writing a Trade History Book, Part 2: The Proposal

I’m the kind of person who writes introductions last for pretty much everything. I always have, and I always will advise my students to do the same. It just makes sense- most of us who write, do so in order to figure out how we think about something. Only once we’ve written do we find out what our writing was about.

However, when you are trying to sell a nonfiction history book to the big four publishers, the introduction is one of the main deciding factors in whether or not it gets bought. Generally, just like with an academic book, you sell your nonfiction book based on a proposal that includes an outline and sample chapters. For a nonfiction history book, the introduction is probably the most important thing, because it does so much in so little space, therefore showcasing your skill as both a historian and a popular history writer.

A good trade history introduction will entertain, inform, and make promises, usually in equal amounts. Now, I’m lucky- my book is about pirates, and spoiler: one of them gets crucified. That practically writes itself, right?

Wrong.

Well, right and wrong.

You’d be surprised (I was) at how difficult it is to use documents created for one set of purposes (a criminal investigation, international diplomacy, taxation, etc.) and pull a narrative story that reads almost like fiction out of them.

It’s easy to summarize the documents “Well, here was the court case of the main witness against the pirate who said he bludgeoned his sloop’s entire crew. Here are the pirate’s last words before his execution.  Here are some random court documents that mention how he stole the captain’s wigs before killing him so that he could disguise his own distinctive hair. Here are some newspaper articles about other crimes that were attributed to him too.”

But that’s only really entertaining to other historians who see and immediately understand the value in having all of those documents together. See, historians tend to unconsciously process documents to get directly to the “so what?” moment. It’s rarely an explicit process, because we will read a collection of related primary sources and immediately understand why those sources are interesting and important, and how they affect what other types of things were going on at the time. Because of our training and instincts, we tend to skip the most important step of reconstructing the story, and instead link everything in our heads. So we analyze the documents, then explain how they fit into, alter, or corroborate our current understanding of history. One might argue that for academia and other related professions, that’s more than sufficient.

For a trade history audience, however, that does not work in the same way. A trade audience wants to be entertained. They don’t care how brilliant I am, and they don’t want to watch me solve the historical puzzle and explain how it affects our understanding of history. They want me to show them the puzzle, and introduce the contemporary people on the ground who were part of it. They don’t want a lecture on the 18th century Atlantic economy, they want me to drop details and pieces of the historical context only as necessary and when they first appear in the narrative arc of the story, and only as necessary to their understanding of what’s going on.  These readers are smart, and they don’t want me to explain to them, they want me to show them so that they themselves can figure it out. The whole purpose of my training as a historian is to re-arrange the evidence and the context and to figure out which historic information is relevant to the story and which isn’t, and accompany the reader along a journey like a guide who allows them to discover the historic relevance for themselves.

In other words, the entertaining part of a trade history book that many academic history books lack, is consideration for the reader’s enjoyment. My job isn’t to bombard the reader with every bit of information related to those primary sources I’m writing about. This isn’t a competition to see how much knowledge a reader can absorb. Rather, my job is to carefully curate this information into an enjoyable experience that allows the reader to become an active detective figuring out things as they go along, rather than being told these things outright. Just like in fiction, I’m showing, and not telling.

So back to the introduction of the book. It needs to promise this type of entertaining historical experience to the reader, while also assuring those who know a bit more about the business, that I know what I’m doing, and am doing it purposefully. In my book proposal, the chapter outline is where I get to show off to publishers what I know and how I’m planning on piecing it together, but my introduction is the first taste of how well I am going to do that. So it’s written like a piece of fiction, introducing characters only when they become relevant, and explaining only what needs to be explained at that moment to keep the story going. In this way, you have equal amounts of entertainment and information- the best of both worlds, at least in my opinion. Then later towards the end, you get a few pages to make some promises. Now that you’ve told the beginning of what will amount to a really bloody and captivating story, you get a very small amount of space to convince the reader that they badly want to find out what happens next.

This is similar to a film trailer- you show the highlights, and allude to how the reader will be changed at the end. For me, that means hinting at ways in which this pirate case will help illuminate a part of history (the American Revolution) that they thought they knew everything about already. I am promising that in reading this book, the reader will make some discoveries that enrich their understanding of our shared past, all while being entertained by pirates. It’s a tall order, and it takes a lot more skill to pull off than I initially thought.  Three rewrites in, and I think I’m finally beginning to get it.