How to get your historical book published: 16 top tips

From writer's block to stiff competition, budding historical authors face a number of hurdles when it comes to getting their work published. So what, exactly, is the key to success? Here, we ask 16 published authors to share their top tips

Books. (Photo by Dreamstime)

“Never give up”

Ensure that your text is in an acceptable format. Never submit anything that isn’t your best effort. Listen to advice, and especially the reasons given in rejection letters. Above all, never give up!


Alison Weir is the UK’s biggest selling female historian – her bestselling fiction and non-fiction books include The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Eleanor of Aquitaine; Mary, Queen of Scots and Isabella: She-Wolf of France.

To read more about how Alison first got published, click here.

“Ask yourself – what will make my book different?”

Investigate the marketplace: how big will be the potential universe of potential readers? What has already been published about your planned subject? Has it been published to death, with a plethora of books already out there covering the same old ground?

Will your book bring something brand new and exciting to those interested in the topic? What will make it different?

Is there a gap in the marketplace your title will fill? Will your book satisfy an existing or emergent market need? Think in promotional headlines. What would be fresh and riveting about the content of your book?

Believe in your book, and do not be down-hearted by publisher rejections.

Author and broadcaster Robert Hutchinson OBE has a doctorate in church archaeology, and has written six critically acclaimed books on Tudor history. His latest book is The Audacious Crimes of Colonel Blood.

To read more about how Robert first got published, click here.

“Think like a tennis player”

Read a lot and write a lot. Have a thick skin, because you will be disappointed along the way. Don’t expect your first book to be published and, if it is, don’t expect it to be a bestseller. It might happen, of course, but it’s very unusual.

Show your work to friends and family. Listen carefully to what they say. If they think something is dull, improbable or clichéd, then they might have a point.

Think like a tennis player. No one could pick up a racket for the first time, go on to centre court at Wimbledon and beat Roger Federer (you wouldn’t even win a point, let alone the match). So it is with being an author. Work hard. Keep at it. Learn. Don’t give in.

Rory Clements is the author of Holy Spy, the latest novel in the award-winning John Shakespeare Tudor thriller series.

To read more about how Rory first got published, click here.

“Make them like your fad”

First, get an agent. Get a good, veteran agent who you like and trust. When that person tells you something is bad, accept that and move on.

Second, write what you know. Forget the fads of publishing – by the time you write your book, editors will want some other fad. Make them like your fad. In fact, the one thing you need to write a good book, and FINISH, is passion – enough passion to get you all the way through.

I LOVE history. I love the stories and the historiography – the reasons people wrote the way they did, and lied, and distorted. I love the buildings and the oppression and the liberty, and I love China and England and everywhere in between. This makes it very easy for me to write about history.  Almost every day, I find something in history (and I read primary sources constantly) that makes me say ‘wow, I could write a novel about that.’ Do you?

Christian Cameron is a writer, re-enactor and military historian, and the author of The Long Sword (Orion, 2014).

To read more about how Christian first got published, click here.

“Be determined and persistent”

You have to care about writing, not talk about it. Work every day, ideally with a set word limit that you have to reach before you allow yourself to stop. This can be quite small, to allow for other activities, but it is essential to produce a viable full-length text for your first attempt. Agents are hard to find, you have to be extremely determined and persistent.

Lisa Hilton writes history books and historical fiction, and is the author of Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince (2014) and Wolves in Winter (2012).

To read more about how Lisa first got published, click here.

“Are you in this for the long haul?”

You need an agent. Send the agent something short to read (30 pages or less) with an accompanying blurb that is ferociously focused on who your book is meant to appeal to. When you are starting out, people want to be able to pigeonhole you.

Try and follow up with a phone call. Don’t email; agents are deluged in emails. They won’t want to take your call, but persist. You have to make yourself stand out from the crowd.

Know that it could take years. Ask yourself if you are in this writing game for the long haul, even in the face of multiple rejections. If the answer is yes, then you are probably going to get published somewhere down the line, because the fact is, as agents and publishers have told me, most would-be authors give up after about five years of not finding a publisher. But know that you are tougher than that.

Debra Daley is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter. Her latest novel, Turning the Stones (Heron Books, April 2014), is a gripping mystery set in Georgian England.

To read more about how Debra first got published, click here

“Polish your diamond in the rough”

Self-edit first, and self-edit sincerely and assiduously before you show your work to the people who will help you get it published. Cut 10 per cent, declare war on adverbs, read it aloud, ask your mum and your best friend and your cousin what they think.

Your book is not perfect yet, and agents see mountains of unpolished material daily. Stand out by polishing your diamond in the rough before it lands in their inbox or on their desk.

Lyndsay Faye is the author of the highly acclaimed Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret. Faye’s latest novel, The Fatal Flame, is the final installment in her Timothy Wilde series.

To read more about how Lyndsay first got published, click here

“Use your contacts”

Work on your book until you can’t bear it any more. Put it aside for a while and then do it again. Do the same with your submissions. Get a second opinion. Ask for help. Use your contacts. If you don’t have any, go out and make some. Attend events and conferences, talk to people, make friends. Be tenacious. But, most of all, make your book the best it can be.

Katherine Clements is the author of The Crimson Ribbon. Her latest novel is The Silvered Heart.

To read more about how Katherine first got published, click here.

“Don’t try to second guess what might be popular”

The best advice is the most obvious: don’t give up. I was lucky, but we all know successful, even phenomenally successful, novelists like JK Rowling who went on and on battering at the doors of publishers until she found one who liked her writing.

It took my friend, John Spurling, more than a decade to get published his novel about 12th-century China, Ten Thousand Things. Now it’s being read on both sides of the Atlantic and is up for all sorts of awards.

There’s another lesson from this book and several others, for example H is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald, 2014) and The Hare with Amber Eyes (Edmund de Waal, 2010): you can hit the bulls-eye with a book that seems, on the face of it, quite obscure. So write about what you care about and don’t try to second guess what might be popular. Almost no one can predict next year’s bestseller. Actually, no one!

Rachel Billington is the author of more than 20 novels, her latest being Glory.

To read more about how Rachel first got published, click here.

 “Have another job to pay bills”

Be aware that writing is lonely and, except for a few at the top, very badly paid, so, when starting out, have another job to pay bills and meet people. Present your idea to publishers as either a full manuscript or an excerpt plus plot summary. If going for the latter, try to include sketches of all the main characters. Be clear of the audience you are writing to.

James Heneage is the author of The Towers of Samarcand (Quercus, 2014) volume 2 of The Mistra Chronicles, and co-founder (with fellow author James Holland) of The Daily Mail Chalke Valley History Festival.

To read more about how James first got published, click here.

“Get yourself out there”

Firstly, go to as many book talks and festivals as you can. You’ll pick up lots of tips about writing and publishing. Chat to the people in the coffee and cloakroom queues. You may find yourself talking to an agent or editor.

Secondly, join one of the professional societies for the genre you write in, or at least check out their websites. Many societies such as the Crime Writers Association, Historical Novel Association or the Romantic Novel Association run competitions for unpublished novelists. They also have mentoring programs and manuscript appraising schemes, where your manuscript will be read by experienced authors or agents in that genre.

And from their newsletters and websites, you’ll be able to see at a glance which editors in the different publishing houses are buying the kind of book you write. That will save you a lot of time, and help you to get your manuscript on to the desk of exactly the right editor or agent.

Karen Maitland is the author of medieval thrillers including The Vanishing Witch; Liars and Thieves, and Falcons of Fire and Ice. Her latest work is The Raven’s Head.

To read more about how Karen first got published, click here.

“Do your homework”

Have a look at the market. Find out what sells. Don’t just copy the successful books, but be mindful that your idea needs to be commercially viable before anyone parts with their money for it. And finish the book. Don’t give up when it becomes a slog (and it will) during the middle third.

Find an agent before approaching publishers, and select agents carefully. Look at the kind of thing they usually represent. The rest is perseverance. Keep writing; don’t be put off.

Michael Arnold is the author of Traitor’s Blood and of the forthcoming Marston Moor, sixth in The Civil War Chronicles featuring Major Stryker – ‘the Sharpe of the Civil War’.

To read more about how Michael first got published, click here.

“Keep imagining”

Keep reading and writing, even while you are trying to get something published. Don’t stop, and don’t give up. Keep writing other things, keep imagining other stories, keep a notebook!

Victoria Hislop is the international bestselling author of The Island. Her latest novel is The Sunrise.

To read more about how Victoria first got published, click here.

“Believe in yourself”

Read widely, and believe in yourself. If your book is good it will be published eventually. And try to get an agent. This is not easy these days, but do your homework and find which agencies might be interested in your work. Submit your proposal to them in a professional manner and address an agent by name. (You can check out exactly what they want in a first approach on their websites).

Julian Stockwin is the author of the acclaimed Captain Kydd series. His latest work, TYGER will be published in hardback and ebook format in October 2015.

To read more about how Julian first got published, click here.


This advice was originally published as part of BBC History Magazine’s Inspiring Writing competition, in collaboration with Hodder.