Why don’t we publish biographies any more?

I’m feeling both sad and angry about the state of publishing at the moment.  Someone I know is trying to get a biography published: it’s a great story about a fascinating couple, well written and with a wealth of copyright-free images.  There’s even an international conference coming up next year that will deal with the 2 people concerned.

Yet one publisher says: ‘it’s just too difficult to sell a biography of people who aren’t household names in today’s publishing climate’.

There are several issues here.  We all know that publishing is in trouble at the moment.  We’ve all discussed this ad nauseum so I’m not going there now.  But there’s also another problem: publishers want books on familiar topics, not on something new.

This problem is not limited to biography, but in a small market like Australia, it seems to be a particular problem in this field.  Yet there are so many fascinating stories still to be told.

Recently my friend and colleague Geoff Ginn managed to break through this barrier when he finally found a publisher for his biography of John Ward, ‘a spiritualist, mystic, historian and lifelong collector of antiquities’ who eventually established the Abbey Museum just north of Brisbane.  Ward is certainly not a household word, but Sussex Academic Press has invested in his book, putting out a paperback edition at a reasonable price.  It helps that the Abbey Museum will sell it to the crowds who come to their medieval fairs each year.

Geoff Ginn Archangels and Archaeology

There are many fascinating stories of people who are not ‘household words’, it’s true, but there are also ‘important people’ who missed the boat, biographically speaking.  Once upon a time, there was an expectation that every early Governor would eventually become the subject of a biography – but where are the biographies of Phillip Gidley King or Sir Thomas Brisbane?  Carol Liston’s thesis on Brisbane appeared in articles and chapters, but was never converted to a book.

The same is true of broader topics.  Some stories, particularly military stories, get retold again and again.  Other stories never get published, no matter how well they are written.  At best these stories are buried in academic journals or are published in ferociously expensive academic editions that will only ever be available in university libraries.

Why is it that we, as readers, have become so fearful of reading something new?

Geoffrey Ginn, Archangels and Archaeology: J.S.M.Ward’s Kingdom of the Wise (Eastbourne, Sussex Academic Press, 2012)

Disclaimer: Although I’ve written biographies of unknown people in my time, in this case, the ‘someone I know’ is not me.

Update, 8 June 2013: The biography did finally find a publisher, Wakefield Press, and will be launched at the end of July. So watch out for Love’s Obsession: The Lives and Archaeology of Jim and Eve Stewart, by Judy Powell.

This time last year:
Pushing Back the Hendra Virus, 3 July 2011
The Habsburg Inheritance, 8 July 2011
Scandal Sheets, 11 July 2011

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10 responses to “Why don’t we publish biographies any more?

  1. And yet memoirs, even – and often in particular – of obscure people don’t seem to suffer the same fate. I don’t understand this. You’d think the readership would be similar, but apparently not.

  2. You’re right Judy, and I hadn’t thought of that.
    Memoirs are very popular at present. In fact one of the problems biographers face is that autobiographies and biographies are often lumped together (for prizes, for instance) when they are really very different genres.

  3. I would argue that people aren’t any more fearful of reading something new than they’ve ever been. But with so much available to read, to consume, at any one time, people want a good investment (not just publishers, but consumers who are giving up their time or money on a gamble). People try to narrow the odds by looking towards a subject that interests them, or an author they know. Does it mean they will miss amazing things? Yes. But it’s also how people mitigate the risk of a bad investment and it happens across the board.

    Your friend who is trying to get the bio published could look into pitching the story in a different way, one that might seem more catchy to those who don’t know the story or the character of the person whom the biography is about. If he/she can show there is a clear market for the book (or how one could be made), then surely pitching for publication will be easier?

  4. Marcus Harmes

    I would love to write a biography of one of the bishops in my PhD, Henry Compton, but I very much doubt he would count as a household name, yet his is a really good story

  5. A colleague of mine once said, rather devastatingly, that ‘biographies are more fun to research than to read’! I hope he’s wrong – and I know he is, really, but you need to write while knowing that it may not be easy to sell the idea to a publisher. I suppose it’s a matter of finding the way to sell that good story to a publisher, as Suse implies. And as Judy points out, Memoirs of unknown people sell – and what sells them is the story and the writing. So go for it!

  6. I have only JUST “discovered” this blog.Perhaps I’m covering already “well ploughed” ground for those more familiar with the site,however I’d like to draw one observation to the attention of readers of Historians are Past Caring.
    A discussion about Judy Powell’s “Love’s Obsession : The Lives and archeology of Jim and Eve Stewart” is soon to be featured on Radio National’s Late Night Live program with Phillip Adams.
    At least for THIS biography,the twelve months since the post ,”Why Don’t we Publish Biographies any More” appeared on the H.A.P.C. Blog,has seen QUITE an “(up)turn of (good) fortune”-!!
    Ray Cullen

  7. Thanks Ray. I had been planning – sometime – to write about Judy’s book, but your comment makes me realize I should publicize the interview tomorrow night (ABC Radio National 10-11 pm, rebroadcast on Tuesday, 4-5 pm).

  8. Reblogged this on Historians are Past Caring and commented:
    A year ago, I wrote a rather depressed/depressing post about how hard it is to publish biographies these days. So it’s very encouraging to be able to say that Judy Powell, the author of one of the biographies I specifically mentioned, did get a publisher, and is being interviewed on Late Night Live tomorrow night. For Australian listeners, that means for owls on ABC Radio National 10-11pm, repeated (for larks like me) at 4-5 Tuesday afternoon.

  9. Would she have more luck if she planned her own book tour? An editor told me to do that once.

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