Writing and Publishing Historical Fiction

Welcome to Charles Cordell’s page on writing and publishing historical fiction – an author’s perspective. This is not a page on how to write or pitch a novel. It is more a page of tips, thoughts and advice for writers hoping to enter the world of publishing. It is my way of sharing the gleanings of my writer’s journey. I wish I had found something similar earlier in that journey.

Book publishing at London Book Fair 2022
A good day at London Book Fair 2022

I hope this page will offer some useful insights and advice on the world of writing, editing and book publishing. It is not perfect and comes with a health warning. This is one author’s perspective. It is based on my experience, my journey. Others may have different insights, perspectives and advice.

I think most outsiders find book publishing and the literary industry opaque. It is difficult to understand. There is a wealth of (usually) well-meaning advice. But this is often contradictory, reflecting an industry with no clear standard practices. Some of those practices appear unbelievably arcane.

On Chance

It is a beautiful and a cruel world, filled with joy and bitter disappointment. I would implore anyone thinking of entering it to do their research first. The average author earns surprisingly little. Huge numbers of very good writers don’t get published. Many good books receive no marketing support and go unread.

Ultimately, there is a great deal of luck involved. I feel extremely fortunate to have been published. I can only hope enough readers continue to find, buy, read and enjoy God’s Vindictive Wrath. If not, the chances of more of the Divided Kingdom series of English Civil War fiction being published are slim.

On Writing

The internet is awash with advice, services and support groups for writers. Many are probably very good. But there are others that prey on inexperienced or frustrated writers. My advice would be to take it one step at a time. Do not rush in or sign up for a costly writing course until you are sure you need it.

There is a lot you can do to teach yourself about writing. The best advice I have found on the art of writing is Stephen King’s book On Writing. I think it remains unbeaten. I would also really recommend On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price. This offers the clearest advice I have seen on plotting, point-of-view, editing and pitching.

But before you commit your life to writing, it is vital that you find out if you can write. The only way to do this is to open your writing to review. There are umpteen self-help groups, such as Litopia. If this works for you, great. My recommendation would be Jericho Writers. They offer lots of free advice, tips and tools on writing, pitching and marketing – more if you sign up as a paid member.

There are also a range of agencies offering writing courses. Some are expensive. Some are dubious. I would suggest that the creative writing courses offered by the Open University are worth considering, at least as a starter. If nothing else, they will give you a benchmark when looking at other courses.

On Historical Fiction and Research

It strikes me that good historical fiction needs to say something. I am enormously grateful that so many readers tell me that my writing feels very relevant today. This is exactly what I hoped for. I have seen so many echoes of The General Crisis of the 17th Century in my time, on the ground, in some of what I would suggest are the fraying margins of civilisation.

Really good historical fiction also needs to be authentic. It needs to be well researched. There is a danger that a writer can become lost in never ending research and never actually write. I hope I have found the right balance. But best of all, historical fiction should make us feel what it was like to live, love, fight and die in another time. If it can, it should make us think and teach us something of ourselves.

On Editing

Before you approach any agent or publisher, you need to finish writing your novel. (It is different if you are pitching a non-fiction idea.) Agents and publishers will only consider a complete work – not just three chapters. You also need to edit your manuscript. Sadly, agents don’t really take half-finished debut works.

If at all possible, you should seek professional help with editing. It is a specific skill. Whilst writing may be an art, editing is more of a craft. Very many writers will need help with this. My personal recommendation would be Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. They are expensive, but worth it.

On Publishing

Book publishing remains shrouded in misunderstanding and misconception. Take time to research the industry, as best you can, before attempting to enter it. The best source of insight and advice I have found is a short e-book by the agent Rupert Heath entitled Sex, Lies and Book Publishing. I wish I had found it earlier in my journey.

I think the bit that nobody really explains is that there are at least five routes to publishing. Broadly speaking, these lead to traditional publishing, independent publishers, hybrid, self-publishing and vanity publishing. There is a huge focus on traditional and self-publishing. However, it is important to understand all the options, for better or worse.

On Traditional, ‘Big 4’ and Independent Publishers

Traditional publishing is generally seen as a publishing deal with a large publishing house – one of the ‘Big 4’. This is what most writers aspire to. However, it is only possible via a literary agent – hence the focus on pitching to agents. Ultimately, the agent will take 15% of an author’s royalties, but should deliver increased revenue in return. Royalties are usually paid by a Big 4 publisher at 8% of their returns, or trade price of the book.

Independent publishers are those that are not owned by one of the Big 4 publishing houses. Do not confuse these with familiar names that are now imprints bought out by a publishing house. Some ‘indie’ publishers will take ‘unsolicited’ manuscripts direct from writers. An agent is not always needed. Some independent publishers also offer slightly higher royalties – up to 10% of the trade price of a book.

On Hybrid, Self-Publishing and Vanity Publishers

Hybrid or collaborative publishing is a model in which the author co-funds the cost of publishing. This is usually on a 50-50% basis with the publisher. In some cases, the author can crowd-fund their share. In return, the author receives much higher royalties on books sold. There are some very respectable hybrid publishers producing beautiful printed books. However, there are others that simply charge the author and use self-publishing sites and printing services.

Self-publishing used to be thought of as solely about e-books. However, there are also options for print on demand. Many authors enjoy the total control they have with self-publishing. They do not sell the rights to their manuscript and keep all the profits. Some earn higher revenues than traditionally published authors.

Finally, there is vanity publishing. This is where a writer pays for their manuscript to be published. It is one way to become a published author. However, it is not seen as good practice within the industry.

On Marketing

Writing and publishing historical fiction brings together an extraordinary mix of art, craft, research, manufacture and business acumen. Sadly, today, much of the industry is risk averse. It tends to back trends. If you are writing within the bounds of a well-tried genre, this is fine. If not, it can be a problem finding an agent or publisher.

Where this really counts is in the amount of marketing heft a publisher gives to a book. Generally, a publisher will put their money and effort behind established bestseller names and celebrities. They won’t back an outside horse. Their focus will be on placing a book with major retailers – particularly with supermarkets.

This means that many good books go unseen. Even with a Big 4 publishing contract, most authors need to do much of their own marketing. I have found the marketing advice and courses offered by Anna Caig Communications, tailored for authors and creatives, really helpful with this.

Launch of God's Vindictive Wrath by Charles Cordell - English Civil War historical fiction at the Cromwell Museum
The launch of God’s Vindictive Wrath

On Revenue and Royalties

Royalties are paid to an author when a published book is sold. This is normally 8% of the trade price for a traditionally published book. The larger figures sometimes paid to authors are an advance on those royalties. The author must wait until enough copies are sold to cover the advance before any more royalties are paid.

The publisher’s costs generally make up 32% or approximately 1/3 of the cover price. These include their overheads, printing, marketing and distribution. A publisher’s net profits are reckoned to be about 5%. They will expect to sell 3/5 of the copies sold at a loss or negligible profit in order to secure favourable placing with a retailer. Dependent on the discount offered, retailers will take the remaining 55%.

This means that, at best, the publisher will take about 45% of the cover price of a book. An author will normally receive 8% of these takings – not the full price. This normally equates to a little under 40p on a novel sold for £8.99. The average author in the UK earns just £10K per annum. Perhaps, worth considering before ditching the day job.

However, ultimately, it is the publisher who holds the financial risk of publishing a book. Books placed with a retailer are always on sale or return. Sadly, some 25% of all new books published in the UK go unsold and are returned to the publisher to be pulped. Sometimes, it seems that the industry doesn’t really know what the reader wants.

On Book #2 and Doing it All Again

I have recently finished writing The Keys of Hell and Death – book #2 in the Divided Kingdom series. I am really pleased with it and it is now in editing with the publisher. But I should have started writing it much earlier. Think carefully about any sequel you think you will write and – don’t delay.

It took much longer to write than I hoped or expected. It was also a very different, tougher experience. When I wrote God’s Vindictive Wrath, I had no idea if anyone would read or enjoy it – I had nothing to lose. But the reaction, the reviews and comments from so many of you, has been wonderful.

Writing a second book has felt much more like a test – could I even do it again? I desperately did not want to disappoint. A number of well-established authors have told me that this is not an unusual experience. I am told, book 2 is the toughest to write. I hope this is true!

Charles Cordell on stage talking about historical fiction and the English Civil War at the Chiswick Book Festival 2023
On stage at the Chiswick Book Festival 2023

More on Writing and Publishing Historical Fiction

I hope some of these insights on writing and publishing historical fiction are useful. This website includes a number of posts on writing and publishing historical fiction. You can follow my journey from ‘Army to Author’ at Charles Cordell News, including posts on Author Life & Writing and on Book Publishing.

Please also check out some of my writing at Divided Kingdom Books, including the taster and FREE ebook. You can follow my publishing progress at Divided Kingdom News, including my Author Talks and Book Signings. Alternatively, follow on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter at #DividedKingdomBooks:

If you are interested in historical research, please do check out the articles on The General Crisis of the 17th Century and the English Revolution and Great Rebellion at Notes and Maps. You may also be interested in reading about the Talks & Walks I give, including the posts on History Talks & Battlefield Walks.

If you want more, why not join the Divided Kingdom Readers’ Club. You will receive a monthly email from me including more of my thoughts and experience on writing. If you think this is for you, please do join the Clubmen.

Alternatively, return to the Home Page for information about Charles Cordell, latest posts and links to books.