Writing Trade History

A recap of AHA 2015's Session 294, "Writing for the Public: What Makes a Successful Trade History Book"


  1. This session featured two trade authors, two trade editors, and an agent:
  2. Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders
    David Ebershoff, Random House (@DavidEbershoff)
    Caitlin Fitz, Northwestern University, author of the forthcoming Our Sister Republics
    Deanne Urmy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
    Chair: Wendy Strothman, Strothman Literary Agency, LLC (@WStrothman)
  3. Before diving in, a note on my own perspective: although I write history of science, I make my living as a developmental editor. The job can be vague, but, basically, I make books better. Sometimes that means line editing, but more often it means identifying a central argument, streamlining the use of evidence, strengthening transitions, and jettisoning everything else. That "everything else" bit is part of why I attended this session: most of my clients publish with university presses, where scene-setting, characterization, and the like are neither necessary nor particularly desirable. In the trades, they're essential. I came, then, in hopes of shaking up my sense of narrative style, both for my own good and for that of my clients.
  4. So let's get started.
  5. The room was packed.
  6. But let's back up a minute. No one at the panel ever really explained this, but in case you're wondering:
  7. Instead of delivering prepared talks, Strothman asked the panel a series of questions. She started big: What kind of spark are editors looking for in a book pitch?
  8. Thinking about your audience from the beginning is essential. Some Twitter back-chat on this topic while the speakers continued:
  9. Arsenault suggested that historians might do well to look for "small stories" that have so far been ignored. Note that he's not talking about "historiographical gaps," but rather, compelling narratives that somehow haven't made it into analytical history.
  10. In Arsenault's case, this partially involved cutting an existing book in more than half, a process he found painful. He's not alone in that.