How to Write a Military History Best-seller

Tim Newark, author and editor of Military Illustrated, talks to several military publishers to discover the real secrets behind hitting the top of the best-seller charts.

‘You can start by taking out military,’ says Claire Kingston at Collins Popular Non-fiction. ‘We are talking popular history, good people stories, strong narrative.’ She should know. HarperCollins have been riding high in the best-seller charts with Bomber Boys by Patrick Bishop, a fascinating account of the Allied bombing campaign in World War Two. But surely this is good old-fashioned aviation history about blokes in tricky situations? ‘It is,’ says Kingston, ‘and we are looking for good adventure stories, but it is the way we present these stories. There is a greater audience for military history now—but presented as our history.’ She cities the rise of interest in family history for a broadening of the audience, with women as much as men interested in dramatic stories of the past. The front-cover of Bomber Boys reflects this broader nostalgia appeal with a warmer, saga-style jacket. Collins also publish the million-selling SAS Survival Handbook by John Lofty Wiseman, but even this has had a jacket make-over to make it look more like a travel guide.

The first step to military history success then is to drop the military and instantly widen your appeal. A good strong title works too, ideally an iconic battle—Stalingrad, Berlin—and generally set in the 20th century, preferably World War Two, still by far the most popular conflict for readers and viewers of military history. ‘Get an author with a track record,’ says Stephen Guise at Little, Brown, ‘and ideally the first name Max.’ The Forgotten Voices series by Max Arthur is mentioned by many publishers as a turning point in recent military history, creating a whole new book genre of witnesses to war. ‘This is almost military history without the historian,’ says Guise, ‘unmediated accounts of men and women at war. You can’t get much closer to the human story.’ Yet there are always exceptions to these rules, such as Juliet Barker’s best-selling Agincourt, published recently by Little, Brown. ‘It isn’t 20th century,’ admits Guise, ‘but it is one of the cardinal battles in English history—and it’s against the French. Juliet also achieves a fantastic sympathy with the common soldier and civilian. There is great detail and great pace—it’s simply a fantastic work of history.’

Also, Max Arthur wasn’t the first person to invent oral history best-sellers. ‘He was very much the protege of Lyn Macdonald,’ recalls Alan Brooke at Piatkus. Macdonald was the author of several First World War histories in the 1970s that presented the voice of the veterans as the most immediate way of telling the story of a campaign. ‘I remember when she came to me at Michael Joseph,’ says Brooke, ‘a previous publisher had said she must cut out most of the quotes. Of course, that was what made her book such a success.

The same with Max Hastings—a muscular, contentious style of writing with lots of memories from veterans.’ Endurance is the magic word for Leo Hollis at Constable Robinson. Bravo Two Zero was a military cock-up—‘but it was the survival story of the men that made it a best-seller’. He is convinced that Afghanistan will spawn the next best-sellers with tales of face-to-face fighting against the Taliban. Hollis’s approach to creating a hopeful best-seller is painstaking. Without the large publicity budgets of the top publishers, he believes it is important to establish a writer over several books. Recently, he acquired the paperback rights to two critically acclaimed books by Sean Longden from small publisher Arris. ‘These demonstrate that the author can find new things to say about the Second World War,’ says Hollis. ‘With these now in wider circulation, we are concentrating on promoting his new hardback, a very well researched account of what happened to the 40,000 British soldiers left behind after Dunkirk. It is all about creating a brand for the author.’ ‘Battles or events on a small scale have a dramatic appeal,’ says Michael Leventhal, Publisher at Greenhill Books. He cites Rorke’s Drift and U-boat accounts as two good sellers for him. ‘It brings out the humanity in a situation and that will have a broader appeal than a volume of tactics and strategy.’

Leventhal too suffers from the constraints of a tight publicity budget and understands that newspaper literary editors have enormous pressures on them to cover the latest major titles from big publishers—‘but it is frustrating when you have high quality title that deserves the coverage, we just have to be more creative and a good jacket can help entice bookshop managers as well as readers.’ Ian Drury at Weidenfeld and Nicolson, is sceptical about taking the ‘military’ out of military history. In fact, he believes quite the reverse. ‘All history is military history,’ he says unapologetically. To prove the point that traditional military history can still sell well, he shows me Wings on my Sleeve by Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown. With an old-fashioned jacket and grey photographs scattered through the text, this updated reprint from 1961 is everything that the new trend in military history is leaving way behind. But it sold 12,000 in hardback in the UK and the paperback is set to do even better. ‘Of course, the author is a legend,’ explains Drury, ‘and frequently appears on Discovery Channel documentaries.’ Ancient military history is doing well for Weidenfeld and Nicolson with author Adrian Goldsworthy reaping the benefit. ‘Some times we have to tweak things,’ says Drury. ‘His history of the Punic wars sold much better when we called it the fall of the Carthage.’ Goldsworthy’s In the Name of Rome broke the rule that people don’t like buying multiple biographies in one book. His accounts of 15 Roman commanders sold 4-5,000 copies in hardback and sailed past 40,000 in paperback.

Anniversaries continue to be a good hook to hang military history, but the right format is frequently the key. Drury’s rule of anniversary publishing is to put the hardback out in the year before the anniversary and then push the paperback while other publishers have their more expensive hardbacks on sale. For Drury, throwing money at a title is not necessarily the answer. Six figure plus advances for military history titles don’t make sense to him. ‘The history market is healthy,’ he says, ‘but it is never going to justify advances over £100,000. The audience is just not there.’ The £1.3 million paid for Johnson Beharry VC’s Barefoot Soldier is a cautionary tale with sales of 29,000 in hardback hardly likely to return the sum paid. Barker’s quieter Agincourt has sold more. Authority is a key to best-seller success for Andrew Gordon at Simon & Schuster.

A solid work by a leading academic can sell steadily over the years. Hew Strachan, Professor of the History of War at Oxford University, is still working on his multi-volume history of the First World War for Oxford University Press, but such was the praise in the press for his first volume that Ch4 based a television series on his work and Gordon put together a one-volume version of Strachan’s history which sold 75,000 in hardback. Gordon is now hoping to repeat this success with a critically acclaimed history of the Crusades by Thomas Asbridge, a young academic at the University of London. His First Crusade sold 5,000 in hardback, but went on to bag a further 35,000 in paperback.

A complete history of the crusades is now planned. Anti-war sentiment in the UK is understood by some publishers to mean that only political books on the war in Iraq will sell well. Simon & Schuster have had their success with Blair’s Wars, but Andrew Gordon believes there is a good combat story to come out the fighting in Iraq and he will publish it—House to House by David Bellavia. He describes it as ‘Black Hawk Down comes indoors’ and the jacket avoids any mention of Iraq or Fullujah, where it is set, but stresses that it is an epic of urban warfare. ‘I don’t think anyone read Black Hawk Down because it was a good analysis of the war in Somalia. They read it because it was a heart-thumping, page-turning thriller.’

Eleo Gordon at Penguin, knew Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad was a great book—having all the elements she looks for, a powerful story well written and thoroughly researched—but she didn’t know it was going to be such a best-seller. ‘There are no secrets, no laws of how to write a best-seller,’ she says firmly, ‘and it’s never been harder—we are constantly battling to get very fine books out in a market that is increasingly interested in celebrity authors.’

Eleo Gordon’s advice to aspiring military authors is to work very hard on their proposals. This is the form that agents like to present to publishers now. ‘It must be very finely honed, the writing polished and the depth of research must be demonstrated. We are looking for serious primary research. There is no margin for error.’

A proposal should usually consist of a one-page description of the project, a list of contents, a statement of the research involved and sources consulted, and a sample chapter.Decisions at Penguin are then made by a group of editors who read each other’s work and give comments. It is a thorough process that is aimed at reducing risk and concentrating efforts on producing books that stand a good chance of selling well. ‘It is a pity though,’ says Gordon, ‘there’s no room now for those middle-list books that might well sell 2-3,000 in hardback, which could be good books with very interesting things to say.’The military history book market—always tough—has just got tougher.