Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Some personal notes

Last week I handed in my PhD thesis and I am now waiting nervously to find out when the viva examination will be. I know who the examiners are so at least that won’t be a surprise. I still haven’t found a publisher for my book. My agent, Andrew Lownie, is now pitching to American publishing houses where I think my sympathy towards Christianity’s contributions to the history of science are likely to play rather better than in the UK.

Despite all the rejections, I have learnt a great deal about the process of getting a book out. Enough people have said that my work is good enough to be published for me to feel comfortable on that front. More worrying is my lack of a profile. Most popular history is written by journalists or novelists because they have name recognition and plenty of friends in the media to ensure exposure for their work. Academics also write for the trade but their books tend to have one eye on the textbook market. Penguin’s various recent heavyweight tomes, such as Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation, all sell primarily to students and are expected to have a long shelf life to make up for their lack of up-front sales. Neither can exactly be called popular. Hawkwood by Frances Stonor Saunders (New Statesman arts correspondent); The Devil’s Doctor by Phillip Ball (New Scientist); History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr (BBC); and Persian Fire by Tom Holland (novelist) are more typical of popular history.

As for me, with neither a professorship nor a job in journalism, getting a book out is a struggle. Even Bede’s Library, which gets over 30,000 visitors a month, doesn’t seem to help (although the publishing industry has been notoriously slow to catch on to the internet and it may get them into trouble quite soon). As ever, I’ll keep you all posted.

At least handing in the PhD has meant I can now read what I like. I’m not really a fiction reader but I do like to be entertained. Of course, most academic books are rather turgid, but hopefully they are informative enough to make the effort worthwhile. If a book neither teaches me anything nor has any literary merit then I would rarely finish it. Recent examples of stuff not worth slogging through include Piers Paul Reid’s The Templars (another novelist turned amateur historian) and the derisory Human Touch by Michael Frayn (novelists turned philosopher). I will usually finish something that is easy reading even if it contains nothing new. Dawkin’s God Delusion and Bill Bryson’s History of Nearly Everything are good examples. Although I’ll finish them, I do tend to find them intensely annoying. The Holy Grail of the book world is something that both tells me a lot I didn’t know and keeps the pages turning at the same time. My current read, The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford (FT journalist) and Jonathan Sumption’s Albigensian Crusade fall into this category.

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