On Trade Books and Global History

Map of Constantinople (Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires. Printed in 1572 by Braun and Hogenberg in Civitates Orbis Terrarum. nicoolay/Getty Images

In this blog post Professor Maria Fusaro responds to some questions put to her by Professor Richard Toye about trade books and global history.

RT: In the many discussions that are currently going on around ‘decolonising’, one thing I’ve not seen addressed is the role of the publishing industry. Whatever happens in universities, publishers have a big influence on how history is discussed in the public sphere. Are there particular pitfalls surrounding trade publishing (as opposed to academic publishing), do you think?

MF: What a good question! Or I should probably say ‘questions’, as you raise more than one point as ‘trade books’ are an important phenomenon within the Anglosphere.

The first question you raise is about relationship between ‘academic’ and ‘trade’ publishing, and their different (divergent?) goals. Directly descending from this is a separate issue, namely how this affects efforts at decolonising the curriculum. And connected to both is how ‘trade’ and academic publishing need to interact.

Professional historians tend to be based in universities, and their scientific reputations are built through their production of academic essays and volumes. Once upon a time, there was an organic development between academic and trade books. One started to publish within the academic world, built his (I was going to write ‘her’ and then realised they were all men) scientific reputation and then, towards the end of his career or in retirement wrote for the general public. As a phenomenon peculiar to the Anglosphere, there was also the non professional historian, who eschewed the academic path and wrote ‘histories’ for the educated public, the latter type were (and are) usually very gifted writers.

These two publishing paths now run instead mostly in parallel, and historians frequently write both academic and trade books, which is great news for the profession, but also potentially dangerous. This is due to the growing schizophrenia between the type of books published by academic presses, and the growth of trade books with a ‘global’ subject, usually sensationalizing individuals or goods – single years are also in vogue.

A recent trade book on Ottoman history started a controversy,[1] which provides an excellent entry point onto the pitfalls of ‘trade books’ and the challenges of engaging a general audience on matters global. I shall not enter into the substance of the criticism about this book, however reviewers makes some interesting points on academic and trade publishing which gave me food for thought. When we are discussing the public perception of history, trade publishing is the great elephant in the room. Professional historians should recognise that trade books do matter as they have a very strong impact on the public perception of history.

The massive power of agents and trade publishers become evident with a little easy exercise to do at home. Over a few weekends do take a look at the book reviews in the Saturday culture supplements of The Guardian and the Financial Times – two excellent ‘global’ newspapers which cannot be accused of singing from the same hymn sheet – and marvel at the overlap of the titles reviewed especially in non-fiction… clear evidence that an effective marketing campaign bears fruit in an overcrowded publishing market.

Conversely, even the major academic publishers appear to not even try to advertise their products, relying instead exclusively on the authors’ efforts – blogs, social media platforms – to garner a wider audience beyond those reviews which are part of the intra-academic conversation. As a result of this even exceedingly well written (and highly topical) volumes do not have the kind of exposure which is afforded to their ‘trade’ relatives.

Scholarly research and publishing is about analytical clarity and respect to the primary evidence. Is about precision in the use of language and detailed references to allow readers – if they so wish – to go back to the sources used and make up their own mind about the author’s interpretation. Academic jargon should be avoided, but technical languages exist because of their precision, and should not be despised but used properly.

Many trade books do away with the boring detail of footnote referencing, as it’s unlikely the reader will want to explore further. The need for an accessible prose is paramount – “concise and readable” is the highest accolade, but they also aim to be “genuine page-turners”. A lot of pressure is put on authors towards highlighting the sensationalist and curious, blood and sex always sell and, in this optic “Worthy of Game of Thrones” is indeed a great compliment. The marketing machine behind trade books needs this type of headlines to build an effective publicity campaign. 

Global history is a relatively new discipline, and is playing an important role in decolonising the curriculum within the academic world. To do the same also for the ‘trade books’ sector authors need to resist the sirens of purple prose, and still apply to their ‘trade’ output the very same standards of academic practice. Trade books are not peer reviewed by the publisher, my advice to authors is to mobilise all their professional networks to have their material peer reviewed before submission. In this way they can both reach a wider public and avoid damaging their reputation.

Maybe in this way both publishing pathways can benefit, smoother style and a larger audience. New perspectives in academic historical writing are truly decolonising the curriculum, decolonising public opinion requires an even tighter scholarly rigour not just bombastic claims.


[1] See Cornell Fleischer, Cemal Kafadar, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘How to Write Fake Global History,’ CROMOHS (10 Sept. 2020); Caroline Finkel, ‘Master of the Universe?Literary Review (Sept. 2020); Efe Khayyat and Ariel Salzmann, ‘On the Perils of Thinking Globally while Writing Ottoman History,’ Boundary 2 (1 Oct. 2020); and Cornell Fleischer, Cemal Kafadar, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘Romancing “American Selim,”‘ T24 (9 Oct. 2020).