Like most creative tasks, acquiring manuscripts for book publication is partly done by instinct, a ‘feeling’ that one proposal stands out from all the others that you’ve seen. In that sense, the process is the same for fiction and non-fiction, although of course the standpoint is completely different. I specifically look for an author who has a real passion for their subject; or rather that passion will invariably shine through in the writing without the author having to profess it.
There’s a trend in history at the moment which is very much about personal narrative, about history ‘from the bottom’. I’m very interested in poignant and powerful oral history. That is what makes history so fascinating to me, true-life stories and a chance to really understand what it was like to experience a certain event from people who were there. Being able to weave together these stories and give them a context is an important skill. In this sense, the distance between fiction and non-fiction is becoming somewhat closer.
Partly due to the speed of communication, history has almost also become immediate in some ways; in military history people are reading about the conflict in Afghanistan whilst it’s still on-going.
I spend as much time as possible getting to know my subject (although I don’t profess to know everything about world history – yet!). But keeping abreast of what books are coming out, what anniversaries there are up and coming, as well as TV and film, is really important.
Non-fiction writers can’t afford to let their imaginations run riot, as fiction writers of course can and have to in order to produce successful work. Rather, they need to be fully versed and grounded in the facts of their chosen subject, and able to talk about it with ease. Of course the real skill is in being able to make new-comers to the subject able to understand, engage with and enjoy it too. I would suggest trying your text out on family and friends, and of course websites such as this are a great way to get feedback on your work.
In summary, I think it’s the history of ordinary people doing extraordinary things that’s really resonating with readers at the moment, although the ‘classic’ history written by experts certainly has not lost its appeal. I think the future is bright for history publishing, as more and more readers come to these books for authentic experiences, tales of bravery, personal histories and learn to about past events.