It’s the time of year when those high profile history books not heavily discounted in December are available at half price in Waterstones. With honourable exceptions, too many titles heavily promoted in the run up to Christmas were heavyweight stocking fillers, of which – with due predictability – a depressingly high number focused upon ever more arcane aspects of the Second World War. These volumes now languish in large stacks, their bright red stickers and knock down prices clear confirmation that these are not books per se but too often unloved and unwanted products, hard to shift and an inconvenience to both retailer and publisher. For most of us the economics of publishing remain a mystery. End-of-year titles arrive in Waterstones or W.H. Smith after weeks of heavy duty negotiations over pricing and promotion, and, unless their final fate is the bargain bin, the mark up must be sufficient to secure at least a marginal return on every copy sold. Hopefully, however disappointing the sales, individual authors can secure a modest reward for all their efforts. Freelance historians deserve every advantage they can attract, and, if their books have featured prominently in end-of-year promotions and recommendations, then good luck to them.
But what about the numerous history books which don’t feature on Waterstones’ front-of-store shelves every autumn, or indeed any other season of the year? The same books are similarly absent from the shop windows of Daunt or Blackwell’s, or any other chain; let alone the resurgent independent booksellers so successfully defying the digital doomsayers. Hundreds if not thousands of titles are left to sink or swim, but at what cost? Year on year a large number of high quality books are the victim of arbitrary decisions regarding their saleability – Waterstones’ regional buyers daily determine the commercial prospects of books they never see. This especially applies to those books researched and written with the intention of reaching out beyond academia to a wider audience; titles which stand up to close scholarly scrutiny, but which can also interest the general reader. Given the number of campus-based and independent historians, and the nation’s ceaseless fascination with the past, history boasts a disproportionate number of titles which deserve a far wider readership then is in fact the case.
The writers of these unknown books have invested years of work, often at considerable expense to themselves and to public funding agencies. Campus career advancement scarcely compensates for an absence of readers. Like Waterstones’ buyers, review editors of national newspapers and magazines display conscious or unconscious bias against the subject matter, the publisher, the follower-free author, or even all of the above. This sad state of affairs might be tolerable if there was a review safety net, but there isn’t, not even on-line. Clearly the Times Literary Supplement can’t provide comprehensive coverage of every history book it receives for review, but in any one year the high quality volumes that never make the cut is alarming.
Far worse than being ignored is the solitary hostile review. If there is a complete absence of interest across the mainstream press then anyone with an interest in history who does discover an unnoticed book can make up their own mind whether or not to buy it. A single review can be disproportionately damaging: it stands alone, with no parallel notices to confirm or contest. If the reviewer has a particular agenda, and these prejudices and preferences are at odds with the title under consideration, then, however unwarranted the criticism, the author’s fate is sealed. Here was the one opportunity to generate interest and momentum, and it’s gone.
Similarly wreaking havoc is the solitary review on Amazon, where the self-appointed critic dislikes a text intensely, and derives deep satisfaction from awarding one or two stars to a book which a more informed and enlightened reader might rate highly. Historians seeking to satisfy both their peers and the public frequently encounter such criticism, especially when writing biographies. The absence of published reviews compounds the problem as an Amazon customer reads the one online assessment, notes its companion rating, and unsurprisingly, chooses not to buy the book. Unless those who do order the book are sufficiently impressed as to write a favourable commentary, no counterweight exists. Thus, the near anonymous volume is left abandoned on its single star Amazon website, drifting year on year into ever greater obscurity. The writer is left bereft of an effective response. Rightly or wrongly, to contest in print a harsh review is deemed bad form. More damnable is the shoddy practice of an aggrieved author submitting under an assumed name a favourable online review and rating.
With so many well-researched, well-written history books attracting so few readers, what can be done? Clearly it’s not feasible to create a website where every half-decent book is guaranteed a review, but it is possible to create an app through which registered readers automatically learn of titles recently received by the British Library in their chosen areas of interest: a simpler, more broad-based, more accessible version of the Institute of Historical Research’s online bibliography. If two or more readers of an individual book wrote reviews (maximum length, three hundred words, respectful of the writer) then they would be published on the BL approved website; everyone originally informed of the book’s publication would learn via the app that contrasting or complementary reviews were now available. The funding base for the website and app would be based on subscription or advertising, or a mixture of both. Creating such a system would be easy as the technology is proven. This seems a simple way of informing the non-specialist about new books which have not been reviewed but deserve wider recognition. Whether such a system could ever be created is a question I leave to the experts. What I do know is that each year far too many first-rate books history are swiftly forgotten, for the simple reason that most potential readers are unaware they exist. Such a dreadful waste of effort, energy, and emotion needs addressing, urgently.
Emeritus Professor of Modern History, University of Southampton