Richard Foreman is the founder of Sharpe Books, sponsors of the 2018 Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown award, and is a best-selling historical novelist. He has also been a consultant and publicist to numerous HWA authors and was the co-founder of Endeavour Press and the London History Festival. Richard talks to Historia about historical fiction, publishing and his own writing.
What is it about the HWA Gold Crown that attracted Sharpe Books to sponsor this year’s award?
Historical fiction is a major genre for us. We regularly break our historical novels into the Amazon bestseller charts. It’s also no hardship, for the staff or myself, to read and promote historical fiction. I also wanted to help support the HWA and Imogen Robertson, who I have known and admired for a number of years.
What struck you most about this year’s entries?
This is the second year that I have judged the award. As well as receiving a high standard of entries I was encouraged by the variety of periods and genres that are published under the umbrella of historical fiction. There is still a healthy appetite for the kind of books I write and publish.
Sharpe Books is principally a digital publisher, yet the HWA Crown awards are for print books only. Is this a good match?
It’s not a question of either/or. Most of Sharpe’s titles are available in paperback format too. I suspect that the shortlist and winners will see a rise in ebook sales as well as physical copies due to being profiled through the award.
The Gold Crown prize has been useful to flag up to the trade that we are open for business in terms of encouraging submissions. We work with HWA members on publishing their backlist books, as well as new titles. We can also work with authors to publish novellas and side projects, publishing them in kindle and paperback editions.
The name Sharpe Books might suggest fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars, but the books you publish cover two millennia. Why did you choose it?
I’m a fan of weak and ineffectual puns. But, a little more seriously, I liked the name and the domain was available.
What led you to become a publisher?
Having worked as a bookseller and consultant/publicist it seemed a natural progression to become a publisher. Being a publisher has allowed me to both look back at previously published books and give them new life – and it’s also satisfying to publish and promote debut writers.
As well as working with writers professionally, I see them regularly on a social level. I enjoy chatting about history and books with writers over dinner – and a bottle or three of wine. I just hope that, one day, my sales will be as high as my cholesterol levels.
I also like selling books. It was enjoyable to do so as a bookseller and publicist, but as a publisher I can leverage even greater sales and shape projects. In terms of the mid-list it’s possible for an independent publisher to compete with the larger houses and curate books and generate sales in the longer term. Sharpe Books is always keen on building brands and working with authors over a long period.
In a crowded market, how can writers improve their chances of getting published?
Now more than ever I think authors should be conscious of what works, in reference to other successful writers and novels. Some unpublished writers need to read more. There’s nothing wrong with being informed and inspired by the likes of Bernard Cornwell, Steven Saylor and Georgette Heyer, among others. There is room for both giving readers what they want and being original, in respect to character, style and the periods people choose to work in.
It’s also important for unpublished authors to do their homework and write professional proposals, taking into account the requirements of particular agents and publishing houses. The conventional book market is crowded – and contracting in some ways – but it’s important to keep writing and keep submitting. Even if you publish your first book and receive and a healthy advance, it’s still a long game. There will always be stones in the road but, in the words of Bob Dylan, “keep on keeping on.”
Are you open to submissions from Historia readers? What are you looking for?
Absolutely, we’re open to submissions. In terms of genre, we’re looking for a variety of things, covering action and adventure, historical crime/thrillers and historical romance. We will also consider literary historical fiction. We can be flexible on length. We usually publish full-length novels, but we are happy to chat to authors about writing novellas and works of non-fiction.
Whether Historia readers are established authors or not they are welcome to get in touch. They should check out our submissions page at sharpebooks.com or I can be contacted direct at firstname.lastname@example.org
You’re a writer as well as a publisher. What three tips have you for a first-time historical novelist?
Don’t overwrite, less is often more. Read bestselling authors writing in the same genre. Learn how to hold your drink and a conversation when you meet other people in the trade.
What was your most recent book about?
My most recent book is Spies of Rome: Blood & Honour. I have written plenty of historical novels set in Ancient Rome involving Julius and Augustus Caesar, but I wanted to come at the period from the angle of writing a spy/crime thriller. I also wanted to write a series involving an anti-hero. The main character, Rufus Varro, has a wonderful ability to be unpleasant and shock the reader. It’s Gordianus the Finder meets Flashman.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
The sequel to Spies of Rome, which I should hopefully finish by the end of the year. The storyline revolves around the death of Cicero and a whodunnit. The series has been great fun to write. The Romans could be cultured and witty or urbane, but they were all too human as well. Spies and politicians haven’t changed a great deal throughout the last two millennia.
Although the overall plan is to write a third Spies of Rome, I will probably take a break and write a modern thriller next year. I also enjoyed writing the Band of Brothers series, set around Henry V’s Agincourt campaign, so I might be tempted back into the medieval period. I’ve sketched out ideas for a book set during the First Crusade and, having read the superb biography by Michael Jones, I am keen to write a novel about the Black Prince.
And, just for fun, if you could travel back in time, when and where would you go?
For research reasons – and more importantly for book sales – I would travel back to meet Augustus Caesar and Marcus Agrippa. I would of course do my best not to earn their displeasure (but probably fail). I would also be keen to join the celebrations after the battle of Agincourt, albeit I have no desire to travel back to take part in the actual fighting. I would have run away, to live to run away another day.
Images: Supplied by Sharpe Books