Historians 'focus on bestsellers, not research'


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The Independent Online

Young historians are shunning academic works in the rush to convert their research into commercially successful books, according to the chief judge of a leading history writing prize.

Sir Keith Thomas, the eminent Oxford historian who is chairman of the judging panel for the Wolfson History Prize, warned that the dash for the bestseller lists risks undermining the status of academic research.

In the past decade, sales of history books in Britain have increased by more than 45 per cent to nearly 5.4 million copies a year – double the rate of growth across the publishing industry as a whole, according to publishing data company Nielsen BookScan.

But Sir Keith warned: "There is a tendency for young historians who have completed their doctoral thesis to immediately hire an agent, cut out the footnotes, jazz it all up a bit and try to produce a historical bestseller from what would have otherwise been a perfectly good academic work. The reality is that only a few of these works succeed commercially."

The winners of this year's Wolfson prize, announced last night, are Susie Harries, for her biography of the architecture historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and Professor Alexandra Walsham, for her book on the effects of the Reformation on the British landscape.