Freelance writer and commissioning editor of Pen and Sword books Jen Newby answers a few questions about publishing, social history, and blogging.

Pen and Sword

Pen and Sword Books grew up out of The Barnsley Chronicle, one of Britain’s oldest regional newspapers. The company branched out into book publishing after several historical articles published in the Chronicle sparked huge interest. Pen and Sword was born when the company bought the military imprint started by Leo Cooper, the husband of romantic novelist Jilly Cooper.

Today Pen and Sword is one of the UK’s leading specialist publishers and publishes over 350 books a year in many different areas, such as genealogy, local history, true crime, and military history. Last year saw Pen and Sword’s best ever sales and allowed the company to expand into new areas and launch imprints in historical fiction, archaeology and social history. You can find out more about us at


I’m commissioning books on a real range of topics.  We have titles planned on subjects from the life of a Victorian detective to Jane Austen’s England.  While most of our books will be on popular areas of history, we’ll be looking for new perspectives and fresh research.

Social history can be difficult to define – as the history of society, it can cover anything! Broadly, I take it to mean an exploration of what the past was like for ordinary people. Our books have a strong focus on personal stories and will weave different stories together to give a picture of an era or historical event, rather than look at the experiences of just one individual or family.

I have three main questions in my mind when considering an idea from an author. Firstly, who would read it and is there already an audience for this sort of book? Then, have they done some research  and would they have something original to say or be able to reveal a new aspect of a popular topic.

Dry and dusty

I think that in the past all too often writers and historians stood aside from their subject and related it as fact (focusing on dates, battles etc) when what many people really want to know about is what did it feel like to live at that time: what did people think, see, and even smell like! This can involve being creative, but when the information is available, why not reconstruct the past?

There’s a brilliant scene in Stella Tillyard’s memoir of the Lennox sisters, Aristocrats, where she sweeps through eighteenth century London and immerses you in the hustle and bustle – milkmaids and street vendors crying their wares; government clerks trudging to their offices; housewives haggling with shopkeepers.

There’s also the issue of class. History has traditionally been recorded by an exclusive minority of male members of the upper classes, and I think today we’re realising so many other perspectives are out there. The same events can appear very different when taken from the view of the pickpocket awaiting trial in Newgate rather than the prosperous MP swilling port in his drawing room.

What do you read?

I don’t have one single favourite book, but I do have a favourite social historian: Virginia Nicholson. She is the author of books like Singled Out (on how the generation of women after the First World War coped with a shortage of men) and Millions Like Us (an account of dozens of women’s personal experiences during the Second World War). Her approach, of revealing the history of an era through the stories of people who actually lived it, is engaging and exciting as you’re bound up in the lives of characters as colourful as those in any historical novel.

We have so many great ideas coming in, and I’m really enjoying commissioning books that I believe will do extremely well. But, for me, the most difficult thing is the suspense of waiting for them to be published to gauge from the sales figures whether or not my instincts were correct!

History isn’t bunk

History is becoming a more mainstream genre. People are picking up social history books to read for pleasure, and non-fiction like Kate Summerscale‘s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher sits alongside novels in bookshops. History is being written in a much more accessible way, to appeal to general readers as well as people with more knowledge. There are also many cross-over ‘factional’ novels retelling history, which often make people want to read about what really happened. Contrast Phillippa Gregory‘s The Other Boleyn Girl with the resurgence of interest in Mary Boleyn, and Alison Weir‘s subsequent biography of her.

I’ve just finished reading Sian Rees‘s The Floating Brothel – an amazing account of the real voyage taken by female convicts transported to Australia on the Lady Juliana in 1789. Many of the women were taken as ‘wives’ by the crew during the unusually long voyage, and Price has researched their stories, uncovering why they were being transported. It’s fantastic and would make a great film!

Writing Women’s Lives

I’d made things difficult for myself, as I chose to research varied groups of women who lived over 140 years of history. I tried to research as closely as possible what life was like for them – what they ate, where they lived, the work they did, their family lives. I tried to fit in as many personal stories, anecdotes and quotes as possible into my book. At the time I was working at the National Archives in Kew, and I spent a lot of time in the reading room exploring original records. At one point I found myself unwrapping paper that Brenda Dean Paul (a 20s Bright Young Thing famous for her drug addiction) had used attempting to smuggle drugs through the post.

Writers and Social Media

I don’t think it’s a question of ‘should’ any more, it’s a question of whether a writer can get away with NOT blogging or having an online presence. It’s a competitive market, and while publishers like Pen and Sword provide plenty of marketing support, authors have to double as their own PRs. Writers should connect with a community of people interested in your book on Twitter; post on forums related to the subject matter of your book; write guest posts for other blogs and websites – all of these things have a big impact on sales.

Jen recently started a new social history imprint for Pen and Sword Books. Contact her by email on .  She’s also promoting her own book Women’s Lives, published last year, and blogs on women’s history at . You can find her on Twitter @HistoryForGirls.