There will be more history books published in England in 2007 and in 2008 than ever before. It is worth making such a statement at the outset, because both within and without the academic world there has for some time been a perception of 'decline and fall' in history publishing, and of a sector confronting systemic crisis. The reality is, however, both much more nuanced and, in many ways, much more positive.
The overall historiographical narrative from oral epic tradition to written chronicle to printed account has been described many times, most recently and elegantly by John Burrow in his magisterial History of Histories.(1) In this very brief survey I shall concentrate more on recent developments, and the nature of the contemporary historical publishing scene.
The varieties of historical publication are almost as extensive as the varieties of history itself, and traditional 'print' has not for many years been the only mode of historical publication, with both radio and television as major conduits for certain kinds of historical knowledge (it is notable in this context that John Burrow concluded his History of Histories with the observation that perhaps the finest work of history of recent times was not a book per se but Ken Burns's 'History of the American Civil War' for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)).
With the advent of the internet, another whole arena of historical possibility has opened up, and the fact that the pace of transition towards an entirely Digital Historical Future has been not quite as fast as some seers anticipated does not negate the ultimate force of the change. For many within the English academic historical community, the greatest digital impact thus far (beyond the bibliographic transformation, which has been huge) has been the physical reissue of thousands of historical works of the past in short-run paperback editions, made possible by the advent of digital printing technologies.
What is striking is how so many of the institutional forms for the dissemination of history that we know today arose first in the second half of the 19th century. The great national historical journals, like the English Historical Review (EHR) (complemented, for example, by the American Historical Review in the USA and Historische Zeitschrift in Germany), all emerged during this period.
The EHR was complemented by a whole range of other local or regional initiatives, often linked to existing antiquarian or natural history societies focused on specific counties (like The Thoroton Society in Nottinghamshire, founded in 1897), each publishing annual 'proceedings' or periodicals aimed at a subscriber base that was largely gentlemanly, non-specialist, and certainly non-professional: the Anglican clergy, in particular, was an absolute mainstay of this sort of activity.
Such societies have been the bedrock of a certain kind of English local history ever since, with their outputs (in which tenured 'professional' historians have become more prominent, over the years) expanding to include both scholarly editions of significant local records like cartularies, and monographic work (of which a classic example is Mary Finch's Wealth of Five Northamptonshire Families 1540–1640, published by the Northamptonshire Record Society in 1956). The English Local History room in the Institute of Historical Research Library is an abiding and endlessly fascinating monument to this hugely significant strand of historical activity in England.
Indeed, the importance of the 'local' to history publishing in England, and certainly to the history publishing industry in England, has probably never been higher. Any high street bookseller will tell you how resonant are non-specialist works of local history or memoir, often with a very strong visual component. Almost every small town and suburb in England has now been the subject of the 'Twerton in Old Photographs' treatment, and every surviving local newspaper will inevitably carry a regular historical feature of a similar kind. The Millennium Project, and its associated funding, was another major impetus at this level, with many villages and communities writing and self-publishing their own histories.
The 'local' leads, naturally, to the community, and to the family, and it is of course the latter which is now the centre of the greatest volume of non-specialist historical activity, with publication support to match. Family or genealogical history has proved particularly suited to web-driven research, as ever-increasing volumes of (particularly) census data have been made publicly available to an extremely enthusiastic popular audience. Television has fed this demand too, both at the celebrity 'Who Do You Think You Are?' level (often with contributions from distinguished professional historians, as when Paul Johnson helped Barbara Windsor to discover her antecedents), and with more practical 'how to discover your own family history' features.
Apart from works of specific local interest, the two other great mainstays of English popular historical publishing are military history and the history of transport (notably, the history of railways). Indeed in many English bookshops the space allocated to military history will be greater than that for all other sorts of historical enquiry combined. This slightly sobering thought is an important counter to some of the media hyperbole that has accompanied the perceived 'Revival of General History', and the acclaim and success that has (deservedly) gone to David Starkey, Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, who have achieved huge historical success both on screen and in print. All made their reputations in traditional print mode, made extremely successful historical programmes on television, and then reinforced this success with either direct TV-tie-in publications or other new books.
That said, there has clearly been a considerable resurgence of interest over the past two decades in a certain kind of serious, scholarly, but nonetheless highly accessible historical exposition. Outside the University Press sector, major trade publishers like Harper Collins and Penguin Books have been very active in this sphere, and a work like Ian Kershaw's monumental two-volume life of Adolf Hitler (2) has enjoyed both academic and commercial success in a manner reminiscent of history publishing of an earlier age, when A. J. P. Taylor reigned at The Observer and Hugh Trevor-Roper at The Sunday Times, each subjecting the latest history books (in an often bewildering plethora of fields) to a sparkling critique aimed squarely at 'the interested general reader'.
This trend is to some extent a reaction against the perceived over-professionalisation of aspects of recent history writing, and reflects a wish, championed by David Cannadine and other leading scholars, to communicate with a much broader public than the academy alone. In practice, however, the actual window of this kind of opportunity to reach a broad general audience remains, for most professional historians working in England, very small indeed. Indeed, for many economic and intellectual historians, it is non-existent (although the history of science, it should be said, has provided a few, truly remarkable, bestsellers).
For the academic majority, dissemination continues to mean the scholarly article (whether published in a journal or edited book), the monograph, the textbook or (occasionally) a more ambitious general survey. It is something of a commonplace that the monograph, in particular, is under threat, as its institutional basis of support in university libraries is forced to concentrate scarce resources on other areas, notably scientific journals and online reference materials.
The actual statistics of output do not, however, support any sense that the End is Nigh, even though the circulation of many English historical monographs is now down to perhaps 300 or 400 copies worldwide. Put simply, more titles are chasing a shrinking level of resource, with obvious consequences. English historians have always been exporters of knowledge, and North America, in particular, remains a vital market for their works, especially and obviously for historians of the ancient, medieval and early modern periods. Surprisingly to some, it can therefore be a lot easier for an English historian to find a publisher for a scholarly work on medieval Yorkshire than for one on (say) its recent social history.
As a general principle the English HE sector can no longer afford to consume the research it wishes to produce (or indeed exists to create!). This is a basic structural challenge, and compounds the importance of 'export' appeal to many historians. Indeed the success of the English historical community in reaching overseas audiences is one of the least trumpeted but nonetheless economically and intellectually significant academic phenomena of the post-war era.
The scholarly monograph nonetheless remains the Gold Standard for much academic evaluation, whether at the individual appointment or promotional level or at the departmental level of Research Assessment. For nearly 20 years the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) has been a major influence on both the practice and the publication of English historical writing, with RAE deadlines (as most recently in December 2007) prompting substantial upward blips in publishing outputs. Major historical journals confront similar RAE-cyclical pressures of article submission, and new journals continue to be launched with startling frequency.
What is striking (and likewise counter to some of the monographic gloom) is how, of all sectors of academic enquiry, major journals in the arts and social sciences have retained their institutional adherents over the past three decades. The circulation of (say) Past & Present will be far closer to its mid 1970s levels (although still reduced) than any monographic work of equivalent specialism in either the arts or the sciences, and indeed closer to those mid 1970s circulation levels than many scientific journals of equivalent stature.
It is often claimed that one casualty of the RAE has been the long-matured, ambitious piece of primary research undertaken by mid-career historians that naturally needs more time to complete than one RAE cycle permits. Fellowship schemes, extended research leave and (of no small importance given national demographic trends) productivity into retirement have helped to counter this, and it has to be said that very few historians seem to lament a dearth of serious works of substance to read. There is pressure though, not least from publishers, for historians to essay textbooks or works of synthesis that will reach a larger readership than the monographic, and some do this with huge elegance and skill, for which their students are duly thankful.
In 2008 the variety of disseminational channels open to English historians is as large as it has ever been. Each involves a choice, on behalf of both the historian and the publisher (or producer, or webmaster) about audience, style, level, purpose and aspiration. None is perfect, and each involves compromises. But the sheer vigour and vitality of the sector, at every level from 'Our Village' to 'Hitler', endures and is one reason why history is still the most interesting subject in which to publish. And if the single most enduring historical publication in the English tradition remains 1066 and All That,(3) a sublimely funny and historically astute piece of deconstruction of the whole endeavour, who are we to complain?
Richard Fisher is the Executive Director of Academic Publishing, Cambridge University Press, and Fellow and Vice-President of The Royal Historical Society.