There was an interesting article in the Times last Saturday about the troubles of popular historians. Advances are down and big publishers are cancelling contracts – simply paying out the advances but no longer being prepared to invest in a book. The article features an interview with Lisa Jardine, one of the queens of popular history as well as an important academic in her own right. She reveals that she has never managed to earn out her advance (that is, never sold enough copies of a book so that it would earn as much in royalties as she was paid as an advance). In fact, it appears that few historians do. She also said that, as far as she could tell, history of science was the current big thing. Personally, I've seen little evidence of that.
It is true that the economics of popular history are quite difficult.
Firstly, it is extremely hard to produce a book that will please both the academic and the popular market. Only Penguin really manages to do this, and even they aim most of their history output at students. They have occasionally published a masterpiece of academic history (Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic, Bartlett's The Making of Europe and MacCulloch's Reformation are three examples) but it is very hard to build a business plan from this. So they mostly do general histories from very well-established professors intended for undergraduates over ten year horizons. The apparatus of academic history also jacks the costs up. Endnotes, bibliographies and indices add to page count; the editing and typographic expense; as well as the time the author must spend on the book. They also have to pay an indexer. There is a huge temptation for trade publishers to do without these. I've been incredibly fortunate that Icon have let me add a hundred pages of such material meaning that God's Philosophers is as well referenced as any trade book can be.
Second, there is the question of time. It is quite possible to bang off a novel in six months, and many of the best practitioners do just that (although literature is a lot harder). You'll hear novelists prattle on about their 'research' but that often just means reading fewer titles than an undergraduate should do for a single essay. Real research takes bloody ages. And popular historians need to live while they are doing all this work. That's why most of them are journalists or academics – jobs where they have some control over how they spend their day. I'm an accountant which means I do nearly all my writing on commuter trains. The first word of God's Philosophers was written in late 2003 and it was effectively finished in June 2008, but the research had started five years before. Since very few popular historians can sell enough books to write full time, a book every five years seems to be the norm.
Which brings me on to the final problem: advances. Not my problem admittedly, as I didn't get one or ask for one for God's Philosophers. The Times article notes a rumour that Tristram Hunt received an advance from Penguin of £100,000 for his recent biography of Engels. I've no idea if this is true (I know Tristram very slightly, but certainly not well enough to ask him about his advances). But just suppose it is true: £100,000 over five years is not a huge amount of money compared to what a clever chap could earn doing other things. That is why Tristram is also a fulltime academic and writes journalism. Charles Freeman recently revealed that his advance for A New History of Early Christianity from Yale University Press was £17,500, which means Charles must work as a tour guide among other things.
An advance of £100,000 or even just £17,500 can have serious consequences for the economics of a book. Publishers do not say much about this, but I understand that they can hope to break even or perhaps make a small profit from sales of 3,000 copies of a trade title. But factor in a big advance, which must come out of the publisher's profits until the royalties exceed the advance, and things get hairy. If the author and publisher both get £2 a book (which is probably on the high side) and the author has a £100,000 advance, then the publisher must sell 25,000 copies just to break even.
All of which may explain why it was so hard to find a publisher for God's Philosophers and why, during the recession, publishers are paring back their lists.